Eye Conditions

Dry eye syndrome: Causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention

An older Indian woman putting eye drops in her eye.
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Dry eyes or dry eye syndrome is a condition in which the eyes do not produce enough tears. It is one of the major reasons people visit an eye doctor. Here’s what you need to know about dry eye syndrome: its causes, symptoms and treatments:

What causes dry eyes?

An adequate and consistent layer of tears on the surface of the eye is essential to keep your eyes healthy, comfortable and well. Dry eye syndrome is caused by a chronic lack of sufficient lubrication and moisture on the surface of the eye. Consequences of dry eyes range from subtle but constant eye irritation to significant inflammation and even scarring of the front surface of the eye.

Illustration of a dry, red and irritated eye

Dry eyes can become red and irritated, causing a feeling of scratchiness.

Dry eye symptoms

Symptoms of dry eyes and dry eye syndrome include:

  • Burning sensation
  • Itchy eyes
  • Aching sensations
  • Heavy eyes
  • Fatigued eyes

Another common symptom is a foreign body sensation — the feeling that grit or some other object or material is "in" your eye.

And as odd as it may sound, watery eyes also can be a symptom of dry eye syndrome. This is because dryness on the eye's surface sometimes will over-stimulate production of the watery component of your tears as a protective mechanism. But this "reflex tearing" does not stay on the eye long enough to correct the underlying dry eye condition.

In addition to these symptoms, dry eyes can cause inflammation and (sometimes permanent) damage to the surface of the eye.

Dry eye syndrome also can affect the outcomes of LASIK and cataract surgery.

Dry eye treatment and prevention

Thankfully, there are effective treatment options if you suffer from chronic dry eye.

In many cases, routine use of artificial tears and minor behavioral modifications (taking frequent breaks during computer use, for example) can significantly reduce dry eye symptoms.

In other cases, your eye doctor might recommend prescription eye medications to help your body create and secrete more tears and to decrease eye irritation and inflammation.

Page updated December 2016

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