Introduction 

Dry eye syndrome, or dry eye disease, is a common condition that occurs 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.

Dry eye syndrome is also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or simply "dry eyes".

Symptoms of dry eye syndrome

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

Symptoms usually affect both eyes and often include:

  • feelings of dryness, grittiness or soreness that get worse throughout the day
  • burning and red eyes
  • eyelids that stick together when you wake up
  • temporarily blurred vision, which usually improves when you blink

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

When to seek medical advice

See your high-street 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, or they may 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 accident and emergency (A&E) department.

What causes 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 identifiable cause often can't be found.

Common causes include:

Although the condition may affect people of any age, your chances of developing dry eye syndrome increase as you grow older.

It's estimated up to one in every three people over the age of 65 experiences problems with dry eyes.

Dry eye syndrome is more common in women than men.

Read more about the causes of dry eye syndrome.

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.

Read more about treating dry eye syndrome.

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
  • eating a healthy diet that includes omega-3 and omega-7 fats

Read more self-help tips for dry eye syndrome.

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 (keratitis); this damage can make the cornea vulnerable to ulceration and infection, which could potentially threaten your sight

Contact your optometrist or GP, or visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) 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

Page last reviewed: 17/03/2016

Next review due: 17/03/2018