Types of Dry Eye

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 03, 2021
3 min read

There are two main reasons for dry eye. Either your eyes don’t make enough tears, or your tears aren’t sticking around long enough to keep your eyes moist.

You can have one type of dry eye. You can also have both at the same time.

You may hear this called aqueous tear-deficient dry eye. A gland in the corner of your eye called your lacrimal gland makes your tears. Normally, this gland makes enough moisture to keep your eye healthy. Tears wash away dust and anything else that may fall in. They also protect your peepers from germs and infection.

When your lacrimal gland doesn’t make enough tears, it causes dry eye. Another name for this type is keratoconjunctivitis sicca. You might have it because your eyes have aged and aren’t able to make tears the way they used to.

You might also have it because of a medical condition, like:

You may also get this as a side effect of a medicine, like:

Sometimes, lacrimal glands can have trouble making enough tears after laser vision correction surgery. This usually goes away after a few months. You can also get this type of dry eye if inflammation or radiation damages your lacrimal glands.

When your tears dry up too quickly to help protect your eyes, you have something your doctor may call evaporative dry eye. Sometimes it happens because of a problem with the makeup of your tears. Other times, it comes from changes to your eye, or the environment.

Tears have three layers: an oily outer, a watery middle, and an inner mucus layer. The oily outer layer helps keep the watery middle from evaporating too quickly. The mucus one spreads tears evenly over the surface of your eye. A problem with any of these can cause dry eye.

Glands inside your eyelids called meibomian glands make the oil in your tears. Sometimes they get clogged. When that happens, your tears don’t get enough oil. The watery layer of your tears loses its protection, and your tears evaporate.

This is common in people who have a condition called blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid) or folks with skin conditions like rosacea.

Sometimes, dry eye happens because you can't keep moisture in your eye long enough. Tears don't dry up. They just leave.

Reasons for this include:

  • Things in the environment like wind, smoke, or dry air
  • Not blinking enough, as may happen when you’re staring at a screen or reading
  • Eyelid problems like ectropion (your eyelids turn outward) or entropion (your eyelids turn inward). Sometimes, the eyes can't close completely after cosmetic eyelid surgery.
  • If the exposed surface of your eye gets bigger, your tears may have a hard time covering it. This can happen if you have thyroid issues that make your eyes bulge, or if you have eye surgery that opens your eye too far.