Dry eye syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is a common condition. It happens when the eyes don't make enough tears, or the tears evaporate too quickly. This leads to the eyes drying out and becoming red, swollen and irritated. See your optometrist or GP immediately if you have any severe symptoms, see below.

Symptoms of dry eye syndrome

The symptoms of dry eye syndrome are mild for most people. More severe cases can be painful and lead to complications.

Symptoms usually affect both eyes and often include:

  • feelings of dryness, itching, grittiness or soreness that get worse throughout the day
  • burning or red eyes
  • stickiness of the eyes/eyelids
  • temporarily blurred vision, which usually improves when you blink
  • sensitivity to light

Some people may also have episodes of watering eyes. This can occur if the eye tries to relieve the irritation by producing more tears.

When to seek medical advice

See your optician (optometrist) if you have persistent but mild symptoms of dry eye syndrome.

They can examine you to check if the problem is caused by an underlying condition. They may also refer you to an eye specialist.

Contact your optometrist or GP immediately if you have any severe symptoms. If this isn't possible, visit your nearest emergency department.

Contact your optometrist or GP, or visit your nearest emergency department immediately if you have any of the following symptoms, as they could be a sign of a more serious condition:

  • extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • very painful or red eyes
  • a deterioration in your vision

Causes of dry eye syndrome

Dry eye syndrome can occur when the complex tear production process is disrupted in some way. There are many different reasons why this can happen, although a single cause often can't be found.

Common causes include:

  • being in a hot or windy climate
  • wearing contact lenses
  • certain underlying medical conditions, such as blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids), Sjogren’s syndrome, diabetes mellitus and thyroid disease
  • side effects of certain medications – including antihistamines, antidepressants, beta-blockers and diuretics
  • hormonal changes in women – such as during the menopause, pregnancy, or while using the contraceptive pill

Although the condition may affect people of any age, your chances of developing dry eye syndrome increase as you grow older (over 50). It increases from 7.5 per cent of people in their 50s to 15 per cent of people in their 70s.

Dry eye syndrome is more common in women than men.

How dry eye syndrome is treated

Dry eye syndrome isn't usually a serious condition. Treatments are available to help relieve the symptoms, which include:

  • eye drops to lubricate the eyes
  • medications to reduce any inflammation
  • if necessary, surgery to prevent tears from draining away easily

If dry eye syndrome is caused by an underlying condition, treating this condition usually helps to relieve the symptoms. See your optometrist or GP for treatment.

Caring for your eyes

As well as medical treatments, there are some things you can do yourself to help prevent dry eye syndrome or reduce the symptoms.

These include:

  • keeping your eyes and eyelids clean and protecting them from dusty, smoky, windy and dry environments
  • using your computer or laptop correctly to avoid eye strain
  • using a humidifier to moisten the air

There is some debate on whether diet helps with reducing the symptoms or not. In particular, certain oils, omega 3 and 6 are thought to help with dry eye. However, there isn’t any large scale evidence that taking these supplements will help you.

Further problems

Although dry eye syndrome may be uncomfortable, it doesn't usually cause any serious problems. The two main complications associated with dry eye syndrome are:

  • conjunctivitis – inflammation of the conjunctiva, the transparent layer of cells that covers the white part of the eyeball and the inner surfaces of the eyelids; most cases are mild and don't need specific treatment
  • inflammation of the cornea – in rare cases, severe untreated dry eye syndrome can damage the surface of the cornea this damage can make the cornea vulnerable to ulceration and infection, which could potentially threaten your sight


The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published March 2018

This page is due for review July 2019

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