If you’re one of the millions of people who have persistently dry eyes, you know that dry eye syndrome can be a nuisance. But the condition, which happens when your tears don’t lubricate your eyes well enough, can be more than just uncomfortable.

Dry eye syndrome sometimes signals an underlying health problem. If left untreated over the long term, it may lead to complications like infection, inflammation, and scarred corneas.

When to See a Doctor About Dry Eye

See your doctor if you have long-lasting symptoms of dry eyes, including:

  • Stinging, burning, or scratchy eyes
  • Mucus around your eye
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Red eyes
  • A feeling of having something in your eyes
  • A hard time wearing contact lenses
  • Blurred vision or eye fatigue
  • Watery eyes, which can happen because of irritation that comes with dryness

Complications of Untreated Dry Eye

Problems that can happen if you don't treat dry eye include:

  • Eye infections
  • Eye inflammation
  • Corneal abrasions or ulcers (sores)
  • Vision loss
  • Difficulty reading, driving, or doing other things that require good vision

How do these complications happen? Keep in mind that dry eye happens when your eyes don’t make enough tears to stay wet, or when your tears don’t work the way they should. And tears do more than help you express emotions -- they keep your eyes healthy.

For one thing, they protect the surface of your eyes from infections by helping to wash away germs. But if you have dry eye syndrome, your tears don’t do this well enough. So you’re more likely to get eye infections. Eye infections, in turn, can cause complications including permanent vision loss.

Tears also carry away physical irritants like dust and dirt. So lack of lubrication in your eyes can lead to corneal abrasions (small scratches to the clear outer layer of your eye) or more serious corneal ulcers (sores on your corneas).

There’s also a complicated connection between dry eye and eye inflammation.

Inflammation in parts of your eye, like the tear glands, can lead to dry eye. But damage to your cornea caused by dry eye syndrome can lead to more inflammation. That happens when your body sends immune cells where the damage is. So there’s a vicious cycle of inflammation and dry eye that can make the condition worse.

How Can a Doctor Help?

While some cases of dry eye can be easily treated with home remedies, dry eye syndrome is made up of a wide range of problems with different causes. A doctor can help you figure out the best way to manage dry eye to prevent complications and improve your quality of life. They may prescribe  medication, recommend a procedure, or suggest other techniques to treat dry eye.   

Dry eye syndrome may also be a sign of another health problem, such as Sjogren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, lymphoma, or systemic lupus erythematosus. Getting it checked out by a doctor could mean the timely diagnosis of a disease that affects your whole body.

Finally, dry eye can increase your risk of complications after common procedures like laser vision surgery. Make sure it’s properly treated before you have any such operations.    

Show Sources

SOURCES:

The Ocular Immunology and Uveitis Foundation: “Dry Eye.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dry eyes.”

National Eye Institute: “Dry Eye.”

Harvard Medical School: “The fix for dry eyes.”

Journal of Ophthalmic and Vision Research: “Dry Eye: an Inflammatory Ocular Disease,” “Dry Eye Syndrome.”

American Academy of Ophthalmology: “Corneal Abrasion and Erosion.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Eye Infections.”

Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science: "Inflammatory Response in Dry Eye."

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