Causes of dry eye syndrome 

Dry eye syndrome can occur if your eyes don't produce enough tears or your tears evaporate too quickly.

This may happen if any part of the tear production process becomes disrupted and the quantity or quality of your tears is affected.

There are many different reasons why this can happen, although a single identifiable cause may not be found. Some of the possible causes are described below.

Hormonal changes

Hormones – powerful chemicals produced by the body – and the nervous system play an important part in tear production.

Hormones stimulate the production of tears. Changes in hormone levels in women can increase their risk of dry eye syndrome. For example:

Ageing

Dry eye syndrome is more common in older people. This may be because you produce fewer tears as you get older, and your eyelids become less effective at spreading tears over the surface of the eyes.

Environment and activities

Environmental factors can have a drying effect on your eyes, causing your tears to evaporate. These include:

  • sun
  • wind
  • dry climate
  • hot blowing air
  • high altitude

Certain activities can also contribute to dry eye syndrome, such as:

  • reading
  • writing
  • working with a computer

People tend to blink less frequently during activities that require visual concentration. This means the tear film evaporates or drains away more quickly than it's replenished.

Certain medications

Several medicines are thought to cause dry eye syndrome as a side effect in some people, including:

Laser eye surgery

Some people who have had certain types of laser eye surgery find they have dry eye syndrome in the weeks after surgery.

The symptoms usually clear up after a few months, but in some cases may continue.

Contact lenses

Sometimes contact lenses irritate the eye and cause dry eye syndrome. Changing to a different type of lens or limiting how often you use your contact lenses usually helps resolve the symptoms, or you can try changing cleaning solutions or using preservative-free lubricant eye drops.

Medical conditions

There are a number of medical conditions that increase your risk of developing dry eye syndrome.

Many people with dry eye syndrome also have blepharitis or meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD). This is where the eyelid margins become inflamed, which can block the glands that produce oils for the tear film.

Blepharitis can occur at any age and in otherwise healthy people, although it sometimes occurs as the result of a bacterial infection or other conditions, such as rosacea, a skin condition that causes the face to appear red and blotchy.

Other medical conditions that can increase your risk of dry eye syndrome include:

  • allergic conjunctivitis – inflammation of the transparent layer of cells that covers the white part of the eyeball and the inner surfaces of the eyelids (conjunctiva) caused by an allergy, usually to pollen and dust mites
  • contact dermatitis – a type of eczema that causes inflammation of the skin when you come into contact with a particular substance you're sensitive to
  • Sjögren's syndrome – a condition that can cause excessive dryness of the eyes, mouth and vagina, which is also associated with fatigue and arthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis – a condition that causes pain, swelling and inflammation in the joints that can affect any part of the body, including the glands around the eyes and inflammation of the white of the eye (scleritis)
  • lupus – a condition where the immune system attacks healthy body tissue, particularly blood vessels
  • scleroderma – a condition where the immune system causes inflammation of the blood vessels and areas of skin to become hard and thickened
  • previous trauma (serious injury) to the eyes – such as burns or exposure to radiation
  • Bell's palsy – a condition that causes weakness or paralysis to the muscles of one side of the face
  • HIV – a virus that attacks the body's immune system

Media last reviewed:

Next review due:

Page last reviewed: 17/03/2016

Next review due: 17/03/2018