Dry Eye Syndrome


What Is It?

Dry eye syndrome occurs when there is a breakdown in the body’s production of the tears that moisten, protect and cleanse the eyes. Dry eye syndrome is one of the most common eye problems, and it becomes more common as people age because tear production can diminish as part of the aging process. More women are affected than men, and the syndrome is more likely to flare up at times of hormonal change such as after menopause or during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Birth control pills can trigger dry eye syndrome, and so can numerous other medications, including antidepressants, antihistamines, decongestants, antianxiety agents and diuretics or other blood pressure pills. Some medicines that are used in the eye also can cause dry eyes as an allergic reaction.

Deficiencies in tear production also are associated with several autoimmune disorders, including Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and myasthenia gravis, as well as other conditions such as Bell’s palsy and thyroid dysfunction.


Dry eye syndrome can cause:

  • Burning or itchy eyes
  • A feeling of something gritty (like sand) in the eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty wearing contact lenses
  • Excessive tearing

Excessive tearing may seem to be an unusual symptom for dry eye syndrome. But these irritant tears, produced as a reflex reaction to the syndrome, contain more water than normal tears, which have a balance of water, fat and mucus. Therefore, the excess tears just run off the eyes and cannot lubricate them as healthy tears do.


After speaking with you about your eye symptoms and general health, including past medical problems, your doctor may suspect ocular dryness. A complete physical examination, and sometimes, certain blood tests may help to determine whether an associated autoimmune disorder is present. Your doctor may refer you to an optometrist or ophthalmologist so your eye can be evalu ated more completely for:

  • Dry spots on the cornea, revealed by putting a stain in the eye
  • Abnormal tear quality, as determined by analysis of the tears
  • Insufficient tear production, measured by a procedure called Schirmer’s test, in which a filter paper is placed inside the lower lid and, after five minutes, the amount of moisture in the paper is measured.

Expected Duration

Dryness of the eyes may be brief if it is related to a medication, hormonal fluctuation or other reversible condition. However, if it is related to an autoimmune condition, it may be chronic (longer lasting).


To reduce your chances of developing dry eyes, try the following:

  • Reduce your exposure to some of the conditions that can cause or aggravate the condition, including wind, smoke, chemical vapors, dry heat, hair dryers and air conditioning.
  • Use a humidifier indoors.
  • Stop wearing contact lenses if you have any dry eye symptoms.
  • To avoid the diminished blinking that can make symptoms worse, take regular breaks if you spend long hours at a computer screen or doing close work.

Pay particular attention to these precautions if you have a medical condition or take a medication that is associated with dry eye syndrome. Sometimes, changing your medication may help, though this should be done only with your doctor’s supervision. If your symptoms are severe, you can protect your eyes from dry air during outdoor activities by wearing swim or ski goggles or other protective eyewear to retain moisture around the eyes.


The two methods of treatment are to replace tears or to conserve them. In most cases, you can use artificial tears, which are available over the counter and mimic the composition of natural tears. Lubricating ointments can be used for more severe cases, but they tend to blur vision and so should be applied at bedtime.

If these do not relieve the symptoms, your doctor may try to conserve tears by plugging the tear drain holes, called puncta, with tiny plugs made of collagen or silicone. In the worst cases, the holes can be closed permanently using electric cauterization.

When To Call A Professional

Call your doctor if your symptoms last more than a few days. Consult a doctor before beginning treatment with over-the-counter artificial tears.


For the vast majority of cases, the prognosis is good because the condition is more of an annoyance than a danger to your health or your eyes. Symptoms often resolve quickly if you remove contact lenses or change your medications or your environment. Even when symptoms persist, they usually can be controlled.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.