This time of year patients often ask me how to relieve dry eyes. The low humidity of colder weather combined with constant use of heaters that we use in Chicago can make our environment exceptionally dry. Most people know what to do about dry skin and lips. Dry eyes are often neglected, even though it can be uncomfortable.
What are the symptoms of dry eyes?
- Redness in the whites of your eyes. This occurs because the eye’s surface needs a constant coat of moisture and when it doesn’t have it, the eyes get irritated and the surface blood vessels in the area get larger.
- A sandy, gritty, burning feeling in your eyes. Again, without a coat of moisture on the surface of your eyes, pain receptors on the surface of your eyes get activated.
- Teary eyes. This may seem paradoxical but when your eyes get dry, a tear reflex causes a sudden burst of tears out of the tear glands. The chemical makeup of these tears causes them to evaporate away quickly or simply run off out of your eyes and don’t give sustained relief.
What causes dry eyes?
Other than the low humidity environments like we experience during winter, behavioral factors can contribute to dry eyes. The act of focusing on something, especially at close distances such as your computer, inhibits the blink reflex to the point that tears can begin to evaporate more and not enough tears flow to the surface. This is a major reason why people get red eyes after a long day in front of the screen.
Contact lenses are another culprit as they require constant moisture and they compete for your own moisturizing tears.
Some people are prone to dry eyes because of a dysfunction of their tear glands or oil glands in their eyelids. Tears may seem simple but they are complex with various parts that need to be in balance. Oil glands in your eyelids provide tears with stability so that they don’t evaporate. Other glands provide the “glue” for your tears to remain on the surface of your eyes. The lacrimal gland provides the liquid portion of your tears. All these parts, including your environment, must be in balance for your tears to provide the stable, consistent moisture your eyes need.
How to relieve dry eyes
The vast majority of dry eyes can be relieved by using lubricant eye drops. Pick the right ones though. Eyedrops that claim to get the red out will not relieve the symptoms of dry eyes but only mask them. Instead stick to the lubricant eye drops. These can be found over-the-counter at the drugstore. Using them throughout the day can provide relief. This will not cure dry eyes but provide temporary relief. Just as you must reapply lip balm with chapped lips, you must re-apply eye drops for continued relief and therapy.
If using drops do not provide enough relief even with proper and regular use, there may be other causes in the complex chemistry that keeps your eyes moist. Your eye doctor is specially trained to identify them. During your eye exam, we can discuss any more complex issues that you have.
Please do set up an eye appointment if you haven’t had one in a while. You can make an appointment on our optometry page.
Photo by Dan Foy / CC BY