Dry eye syndrome 

Introduction 

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The tear film

The tear film is a complex structure which consists of three key layers:

  • a sticky mucous layer
  • a watery layer containing nutrients and essential proteins which protect the eye
  • an oily layer which prevents evaporation

Each part is made by special glands, including:

  • the lacrimal gland (the main gland which produces the water layer)
  • mucous glands (distributed across the surface of the eye)
  • meibomian glands (oil-secreting glands running vertically in the upper and lower eyelids, opening just behind the roots of the lashes)

The tear film is spread across the surface of the eye by the eyelids when you blink, and drains into the tear ducts (situated in the corner of the upper and lower lids) and then into the nose.

Dry eye syndrome, or dry eye disease, occurs when the eyes do not make enough tears, or the tears evaporate too quickly because the oil glands are blocked or abnormal.

This leads to the eyes drying out and becoming inflamed (red and swollen) and irritated.

The condition is also known as dry eyes or keratoconjunctivitis sicca. If the main problem is a blockage of the oil-secreting glands, then the condition is called blepharitis, meibomian gland dysfunction or lid margin disease.

The symptoms of dry eye syndrome can be mild or severe. They include:

  • dry or sore eyes
  • blurred vision
  • the feeling of something in your eye
  • burning
  • watering 

See your GP if you experience any of these symptoms. They may examine you for other conditions or may refer you to an optometrist for further tests. Read more about diagnosing dry eye syndrome.

Dry eye syndrome can have a number of causes, including:

  • being in a hot or windy climate
  • certain chronic diseases
  • side effects of medicines
  • hormonal changes
  • getting older (up to a third of people aged 65 or older may have dry eye syndrome)

Read more about the causes of dry eye syndrome.

Treating dry eye syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is not usually a serious condition, unless it is due to inflammation or certain diseases where there is an overactive immune system. Steps can be taken to relieve the symptoms, including:

  • treating the underlying cause
  • using ocular lubricant eye drops
  • wearing specialised eyewear

In severe cases, dry eye syndrome may be treated with surgery to block the drainage tear ducts. This is either with temporary plugs or by permanently sealing the drainage hole.

Read more about treating dry eye syndrome.

You can help ease or prevent dry eyes by: 

  • keeping your eyes and eyelids clean and protecting them from the environment
  • using your computer or laptop correctly to avoid eye strain
  • using a humidifier to moisten the air
  • avoid air conditioning or sitting directly in front of a fire 
  • eating a healthy diet that includes flaxseed oil and omega-3 fats

Read more information about self-treating and preventing dry eye syndrome.

Who is affected?

Dry eye syndrome is a common condition. It tends to affect people above 60 years of age, but it can affect younger people. It is also more common in women than men.

Are there any complications?

Dry eye syndrome may be uncomfortable, but does not usually affect vision. In rare cases, severe untreated dry eye syndrome can cause scarring of the eye's surface, leading to visual impairment.

Contact your 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 red eyes
  • very painful eyes
  • a deterioration in your vision

Read more information about the complications of dry eye syndrome.

Page last reviewed: 04/05/2012

Next review due: 04/05/2014

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