Eye Exam: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on May 30, 2023
3 min read

If you’re dealing with dry eye symptoms, an eye doctor can help you figure out what's causing them and how to treat them.

They will do a full exam of your eyes, ask about your symptoms, and do some tests to help get to the cause of your dry eye.

You might start out with your family doctor. They may be able to treat you, depending on your symptoms. In many cases though, a real eye doctor your best option. Often, they have the right equipment and can give the right tests to make a quick diagnosis.

Jot down your symptoms for a couple of days before your appointment. This will help you give your doctor a good snapshot of what’s going on. Be sure to include any odd symptoms, even if they don’t directly involve your eyes.

Write down any questions you have before you go. You might want to know things like:

  • What's causing my dry eye?
  • What tests do you use to diagnose it?
  • Is this treatable? 
  • What kind of treatment do I need? 
  • Will my treatment have side effects?
  • Can lifestyle changes help?
  • Where is the best place to look for more information about my dry eye?
  • Will I need a follow-up visit?

Your doctor will likely start with some questions about your symptoms. They'll want to know:

  • What symptoms are you having?
  • When did they start?
  • How often do you have them?
  • Do you have a family history of dry eye?
  • Which treatments have you tried?

You’ll also be asked about your medical history. Also, make sure to tell your doctor about any medications and supplements you’re taking. Sometimes, radiation treatments to your head or neck can affect eye moisture, so your doctor may ask specifically if you’ve had that.

Next, your doctor will look at your eyes. They’ll use bright light and special instruments to examine the surface of your eye. They’ll also look closely at your eyelids and ask you to blink.

After a physical exam, your doctor can give you special tests to help figure out why you have dry eye. These can measure:

  • The volume of your tears
  • The quality of them
  • How quickly you make them
  • How long it takes them to dry up

The tests you might have include:

TheSchirmer test: Your doctor can give you an anesthetic to numb the area around your eye. Then they’ll put thin strips of paper in the corners of your eyes and tell you to close them. The paper wicks away any moisture that comes out and measures it. If the paper takes too long to get wet, you’re having trouble making tears.

Epithelial staining: You'll get special eyedrops with dye in them. The dye in the drops helps your doctor see how quickly your tears are drying out. It also shows them if you have damage to the surface of your eye. The dye clings to any damaged cells on your eye’s surface. It can also highlight any ones that don't have a protective oily layer. The color of the dye in your eyes is temporary and goes away.

Meibomian gland evaluation: Your eyelids have tiny oil glands called Meibomian glands that line the edges your eyelids that touch when your eyes are closed. The oil they make helps keep your tears from drying out. In this test, your eye doctor will press on them to see if the oil comes out and figure out if that's the cause of your dry eye.

Your doctor may also take a sample of your tears to look at under a microscope in a lab. They can tell if a component of tears is missing or low.