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Why Are My Eyes So Dry?

Dr. Jing Han is the owner and lead optometrist at Healthy Eyes Optometry in Folsom, CA.

Q. My eye doctor told me I have dry eye syndrome, but I don't quite understand what that means. What is making them so dry?

A. Having dry eyes is a very common problem. Let's start by looking at the role of tears in your eyes, and then we can address why there aren't enough of them and what you can do about it.

Your tears are in charge of lubricating your eyes and giving them the protection and moisture they need to remain healthy and comfortable. The main purpose of your tears is to coat the cornea, the clear covering on the front of your eye.

Tears are complex and consist of three main layers. The mucus layer helps keep the moisture attached to the eye itself, the aqueous layer carries vitamins and minerals to the cornea, and the oily layer prevents too many tears from evaporating.

When your tear supply starts to dry up, your eyes can burn, itch, feel gritty, look bloodshot, or (ironically) water more than usual. Over time, this can develop into a chronic problem aptly called "dry eye syndrome." According to the American Association of Ophthalmology, approximately 3.2 million women and 1.7 million men over the age of 50 suffer from chronic dry eyes. In some cases, dry eye syndrome is a sign of hyperthyroidism. Without proper treatment, chronic dry eyes can result in infection, scarring, or vision loss.

There are many external causes of dry eyes such as: medications, indoor heaters and air conditioners, overexposure to computer or TV screens, or contacts that need to be replaced. But there are also biological causes such as allergies and aging. Aging is a common cause of dry eyes in older women because of hormone fluctuations, but men can also suffer from age-related dry eyes.

When it comes to finding a treatment for your dry eyes beyond just using eye drops, eating more vegetables, and drinking more water, here are some alternative options:

  • Ask your eye doctor if punctal plugs are right for you. These are tiny, biocompatible devices inserted into the tear ducts to block drainage and increase the eye's tear film and surface moisture.
  • Run a humidifier in your home to increase the moisture in the air and your eyes. Remove any fans that may be intensifying the dryness while you are asleep.
  • Lay a warm, wet washcloth across your eyes for about 1-2 minutes for quick relief.
  • Include more fish or omega-3 fatty acid supplements in your diet. The oils will help to keep more moisture in your eyes.

For more helpful options, read How Do I Soothe My Dry Eyes?

The best thing you can do is to see your VSP network eye doctor who can tailor a treatment to your specific situation.