The eyes make tears to stay wet and comfortable. When they don't produce sufficient tears or the tears aren't of high quality, symptoms like a gritty feeling, burning, red eyes, and blurry vision come into play. There are more than a dozen recognized types of dry eye, so getting to the root cause of symptoms is essential. Lifestyle changes implemented soon after noticing symptoms lead to the best long-term outcomes and prevent the degradation of the ocular surface. From a focus on nutrients to closing your eyes and giving them a break more often, there's a lot you can do to treat dry eyes naturally. In more severe cases, ophthalmologists can advise on the best treatments, from medicinal eyedrops to healing scleral contact lenses, meibomian gland deep-cleaning devices, and mechanical massages.
Close to five million Americans have dry eye disease (DED). The condition is more common among women, and while it's not restricted to older adults over 50, it's particularly prevalent among them. Aging and hormonal changes reduce tear and oil production and can cause symptoms that affect your quality of life. Glaucoma and cataract surgery can also lead to dry eye, as can longtime contact lens use. In addition, those who undergo laser eye surgery when young may notice dry eye syndrome years after the procedure. Dry eyes can result from certain medical conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, medication use, too much screen time, a dry climate, and other environmental factors.
Regularly using over-the-counter artificial tears, even when the eyes feel fine, can lubricate them and keep dry eye syndrome at bay. But preservatives in some topical eyedrops can actually increase tear evaporation, which is the opposite of what someone with this disease needs. Look for preservative-free options instead, especially if eye drops are necessary more than four times a day. Folks with DED might need to experiment with brands before finding the right fit. Severe dry eyes may require a thicker ointment or gel with more staying power.
You can prevent dry eye caused by digital eye strain by implementing the 20-20-20 rule. After every 20 minutes of screen time, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Every time we blink, a film coats our eyes and lessens dryness. Looking at something further away allows for natural blinking. You can also move your computer screen below eye level so you don't have to open your eyes as wide, which increases tear evaporation.
The meibomian glands produce meibum, which gives tears an oily layer and prevents them from drying rapidly. But meibum can get thicker and clog the glands. Applying warm compresses to the eyes every day up to three times a day can assist with unclogging these oil glands at the edge of the eyelids. Thermal pulsation devices do a similar job. Unlike messy compresses, microwaveable eye masks stay warm for the recommended 10 minutes—just be careful about the temperature and follow product instructions.
An eyelid massage can improve blood flow and tear quality too. For severe dry eyes, opthalmologists may suggest intense-pulsed light therapy followed by massage to push the oils out of the glands. Simply close your eyes and gently roll your little finger in a circle. Grab a Q-tip, close your eyes again, and gently roll the cotton bud down the upper eyelid toward the lashes. Do this for the entire width of the upper and lower eyelids.
Keeping the eyes clean can prevent conditions like blepharitis and meibomian gland dysfunction, even if you don't wear eye makeup. You can buy a commercial eyelid wipe to eliminate bacteria, dust, and crustiness or make your own cleaning solution. Fill a bowl with a pint of water that's been boiled, then cool until it's warm. Add a teaspoon of bicarb soda and stir with a clean utensil. Dip a cotton ball in the mixture and clean the closed eyelids and lashes. Dip a Q-tip in the solution and gently run it along the base of the lashes.
Don't underestimate the importance of getting enough sleep. A 2021 study in the Netherlands found that poor sleep quality is associated with compromised tear production and dry eyes across ages and genders. Some people also have dry eyes related to lagophthalmos, and their eyes never close completely when they blink or fall asleep. At night, the exposed area loses moisture, and there are ointments to create a protective layer for true "shut-eye."
Do you drink the recommended amount of water daily? Adequate hydration helps the body make tears and maintains the tear fluid balance, so you can be comfortable whether you're watching a romantic tearjerker or just going about your day. But the jury is still out on whether an increased water intake can help with DED.
Winter can be a very dry time of the year, and you can add moisture to indoor air with the help of a humidifier or pan of water near your heater. A desktop humidifier may improve tear film stability during computer use and alleviate symptoms of dry eye syndrome. Avoid very warm rooms.
Omega-3 oils help the functioning of the meibomian glands and may reduce the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the eyes. They also reduce inflammation, so if dry eye symptoms are related to inflamed eyelids, dietary interventions and supplementation with fish oil can be an element in a treatment plan. It's best to consult with a healthcare professional before taking supplements.
Wrap-around sunglasses are an underrated accessory. Not only do they make wearers look like athletes, but they protect against direct sunlight and UV rays that come in from the side. They're also a barrier against smoke, wind, and fans which can irritate the eyes and cause dryness. Nighttime goggles or shields can also aid folks with lagophthalmos.
Eat your carrots, people. Leafy greens and yellow and red fruits and veggies like bell peppers, tomatoes, mangoes and cantaloupes are rich in vitamin A. A deficiency of this nutrient decreases liquid tear or aqueous fluid production. The medical term for DED is keratoconjunctivitis sicca. That was a mouthful, and if you want to avoid it, you'd best start munching. Vitamins B12 and D are also important, so seek the sun and supplement for B12 if you're vegan.
Approximately 54% of people with diabetes have dry eye syndrome. Chronically high blood glucose can lead to a host of eye issues. Diabetes affects the lacrimal gland's function—this gland produces the watery part of tears, and it also affects the meibomian glands. The nerves in these glands are also compromised by diabetes. Inadequate insulin means less tear production.
Lubricating eye drops treat the temporary causes of dry eyes, such as being in a windy place. Eye drops marketed for red eyes are often decongestants that can worsen dry eyes. Then you have prescription eye drops. These are usually intended for chronic dry eyes, and it can take months before you start noticing a difference, so don't give up using them if you don't immediately see results.
In a 2021 study, alcohol consumption increased the risk of dry eye in females but not in their male counterparts. A 2016 meta-analysis of ten studies also demonstrated that alcohol use increased the risk of dry eye syndrome. Smoking can cause dry eyes and exacerbate the symptoms of DED, such as scratchiness.
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