Dry Eyes: A Quick Guide

Living in Southern California has many perks–within an hour’s drive, you can go from the mountains to the beach, or from Disneyland to the Hollywood Sign. We love the mild climate and low humidity. However, that low humidity and desert-like climate takes a toll on our eyes and can cause dry eye syndrome, which affects over 16 million Americans.

Why are tears important?

Even when you’re not crying, your eyes are full of tears. Tears help your eyes see, remove foreign particles, and protect your eyes from getting scratches that could permanently impair your vision. Tears are made of lipids, water, and mucus. They are made by special glands around the eye and are spread over the surface of the eye when you blink.

What causes dry eyes?

Dry eyes are caused by a problem with either the quantity or quality of your tears.

Your eyes can become dry if you do not produce enough tears. As you age, you naturally produce less tears. You may also produce less tears if you have certain medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome) or if you take certain medications (e.g., decongestants, antihistamines, antidepressants).

Dry eyes can also occur if your tears evaporate (dry out) too quickly. This can develop if you are exposed to excessive wind, smoke, or dry air (such as in Southern California). Even using a blow dryer for your hair can cause dry eyes. Other causes include:

  • Prolonged reading or looking at computer screens (which causes decreased blinking)
  • Using contact lenses
  • Certain eye surgeries, like LASIK

What are symptoms of dry eyes?

Dry eyes can present with a variety of symptoms, but generally cause your eyes to feel uncomfortable. Your eyes may sting, burn, become red, or be sensitive to light. Other symptoms of dry eyes include:

  • Feeling like something is stuck in your eyes
  • Pain when wearing contact lenses
  • Difficulty seeing at night, such as when driving
  • Feeling like your vision is blurry or your eyes are tired
  • Watery or tearing eyes

Many patients are unaware that you can still have dry eyes even if your eyes are watery or teary. In fact, the natural response of the eye is to produce more tears when it becomes irritated from dry eye syndrome.

If I have dry eyes, what can I do?

First, talk with your primary care doctor to help identify the cause of your eye irritation. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may refer you to an ophthalmologist (MD eye specialist) for further management. Your doctor may recommend the following treatments for your dry eyes:

  • Preservative-free eye drops (artificial tears)
  • Drugs and supplements like omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil, which can help your eyes make more tears
  • Warm compresses and eyelid scrubs

Artificial tears are meant to be used 3-4 times daily, in both eyes. Avoid drops with preservatives or decongestants (redness relief) as these can worsen your symptoms.
Warmed wet towel compresses can be applied to each closed eye for 10 minutes at least 4 times daily. Eyelid scrubs can be done in the shower once a day–apply diluted shampoo or baby shampoo to a washcloth, then lightly scrub your eyelashes. These measures can help clear clogged tear glands and maintain the hygiene of your eyelids and lashes.

If you experience persistent eye irritation or pain, changes in vision, or sensitivity to light you may need urgent treatment and should see an ophthalmologist or your primary care doctor right away. 

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