Currently, there is no permanent cure for dry eye disease, which occurs when the eyes are unable to remain moist. This can cause discomfort and may result in vision problems. However, treatments are available to help relieve symptoms.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), dry eye is more common in older adults, affecting roughly 4.88 million people 50 years and over in the United States. Of these, over 3.2 million are females, and 1.68 million are males.

However, it can occur at any age, with the National Eye Institute estimating that nearly 16 million U.S. individuals have dry eye.

Many factors can contribute to dry eyes, such as the tears drying too quickly, the body not producing enough tears, eyelid issues, the use of certain drugs, and some environmental factors.

Treatment typically involves using eye drops or another medication to keep the eyes moist.

This article discusses the causes and symptoms of dry eye disease and how people can manage the condition with medication and natural alternatives.

Dry eye disease, also known as dry eye syndrome or keratoconjunctivitis sicca, occurs when the eyes do not stay wet due to issues with the tears. This may cause the eyes to become drier, which can lead to discomfort and, in some cases, result in vision problems.

In one 2017 report, the researchers recognized that dry eye is a disease of the surface of the eyes, with many factors contributing to the condition. In particular, the authors note that dry eye is the result of the tear film not working optimally.

The tear film protects and lubricates the surface of the eye and is important for good vision. It has three layers:

  • Outer layer: This layer is oily, reduces tear evaporation, and helps spread the tear film across the surface of the eye.
  • Middle layer: This watery layer is a large constituent of tears. It helps wash away objects such as grit.
  • Inner layer: This sticky layer coats the cornea and helps spread the watery layer. It also helps keep the tear film stuck to the surface of the eye.

Blinking spreads tears across the eyes, which then drain into the nose. Several glands and systems are involved in keeping the tear film in its optimal state.

Some research suggests that dry eye disease occurs when the tear film is no longer in a state of equilibrium. For example, this can occur if the body does not produce enough tears or if one of the tear layers does not work or spread out properly.

Symptoms of dry eye

Symptoms of dry eye can include:

  • a stinging or burning feeling in the eyes
  • a feeling of pressure in the eyes or a feeling that something is in them
  • redness
  • blurred vision or sensitivity to light
  • difficulty or discomfort when opening the eyes

Common causes of dry eye

Typically, the glands above the eyes that produce tears keep the eyes wet. Dry eye is usually the result of tears not working correctly. For example, this could either mean that tears are evaporating too quickly or that the quality of tears is inadequate.

Females are more likely to have dry eye disease. This is due to hormonal changes that can affect tear production. The body also tends to make fewer tears with age, which is why dry eye disease is more common in older adults.

Some other risk factors or common causes of dry eye disease may include:

Currently, there is no permanent cure for dry eye disease. However, several options can help maintain moisture in the eyes. These can reduce symptoms and protect vision.

The management of dry eye disease centers on removing or minimizing environmental triggers and maintaining an adequate and functional tear film on the surface of the eyes.

If there is a single underlying cause that a doctor can treat or remove, the symptoms should resolve. However, it is also worth noting that dry eye disease is part of the typical aging process.

Doctors may recommend or prescribe different treatments for dry eye disease depending on the underlying cause or causes and the severity of the symptoms.

Some options may include:

  • Artificial tear solutions: These are common eye drops that people can buy over the counter (OTC) without a prescription. These are the most common dry eye treatments, and doctors will usually recommend them first.
  • Warm compresses: A person can apply a warm, moist cloth on the closed eyelids for a few minutes to help unclog the oil-producing glands and keep their eyes lubricated. As long as the person is comfortable, the ideal temperature of the cloth can be around 40–41.5°C (104–106°F).
  • Hygiene: Simply regularly cleaning a person’s eyelids with baby soap and water can help relieve dry eye symptoms. It is best to use a small cloth or cotton ball and wipe from the inner to the outer part.
  • Moisturizing gels or ointments: Instead of eye drops, a doctor may suggest OTC gels or ointments to help the eyes feel better.
  • Supplements: Getting certain nutrients from food or supplements can help keep the eyes lubricated. This includes omega-3, as well as vitamins D, E, B, and A.
  • Castor oil: 2021 research suggests that castor oil can help treat dry eyes by reducing inflammation, swelling, itching, and redness. However, people should not apply it directly to the eyes. Instead, a person should put some on a cotton ball or pad and hold it over the eye for a few minutes each day. There should also be eye drops containing castor oil available for purchase at most pharmacies.
  • Prescription eye drops: In more serious cases, a doctor may prescribe cyclosporine (Restasis, Cequa) or lifitegrast (Xiidra) eye drops to help increase tear production.
  • Punctal plugs: These special plugs go in the openings of the tear ducts, which are called puncta. They can help relieve dry eye by keeping tears in the eye for longer.
  • Surgery: In rare cases, a doctor may suggest surgery to tighten the lower eyelids and help the eyes retain tears.
  • Changing medication: If a medication that a person is taking for another health condition is causing dry eye, a doctor may suggest changing to a different medication.
  • LipiFlow Thermal Pulsation System: This is a device composed of an inner shield that goes beneath the eyelids and onto the eye. It emits heat and uses an air bladder to help unclog the oil glands in the eyes. The device keeps the heat and pressure away from the cornea and globe. The entire process takes 15 minutes.

Depending on the possible causes of dry eye, there are a range of additional self-help remedies or preventive measures to try.

These include:

  • getting adequate sleep
  • drinking plenty of water
  • using a humidifier
  • avoiding smoke, wind, air conditioning, and dry environments, if possible
  • wearing wraparound sunglasses while outdoors
  • reducing screen use, taking breaks, and remembering to blink

Learn more about natural treatments for dry eye.

This section answers some common questions about dry eye.

How is dry eye diagnosed?

A doctor can check for dry eye as part of a comprehensive eye exam. This involves the doctor administering eye drops and then checking eye health.

The exam could be one of the following:

  • Slit lamp test: The doctor will use a microscope to check whether the eyes are producing enough tears.
  • Schirmers test: The doctor will use a small piece of paper to measure the eyes’ moisture.
  • Tear breakup time: The doctor will use this test to check how long the tear film remains after a person blinks.

Can dry eye ever be fixed?

Currently, there is no permanent cure for this condition. However, people can use a variety of treatments and home remedies to reduce or manage the symptoms and protect their eye health and vision.

How do you fix dry eyes ASAP?

A person experiencing discomfort from dry eyes may get some immediate relief by stepping away from any screens, blinking, and using a warm compress over their eyes. They can also use any tear drops that a doctor has prescribed.

Dye eye disease is a common condition, with research estimating that it can affect 16 million people in the United States.

Multiple factors may contribute to the development of dry eye disease. People can help manage the condition by minimizing any environmental triggers, treating the symptoms, and aiming to increase tear production or retention.