When Dry Eyes May Not Be a Medical Problem

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on July 10, 2023
5 min read

Your eyes get dry when they don't make tears properly or when the tears dry up too quickly.

Dry eyes can be caused by allergies, medications, certain medical conditions, hormones, and, yes, age. Most people over 65 have some symptoms, which include:

  • Irritated, gritty, scratchy, or burning eyes
  • A feeling that something's in your eye
  • Very watery eyes
  • Blurred vision

Before you call your doctor, though, consider what might be irritating your eyes. You may be able to fix the problem.

Whether your living space and work space are heated or air-conditioned, a lack of moisture in the air can make your eyes red, itchy, and irritated. Add to that the glare caused by poor lighting, indoor air pollutants -- and the fact you rarely take breaks -- and you've got yourself a recipe for dry eyes.

Place plants and dishes of water in a too-dry room, or use a humidifier. Keep a bottle of eye mist on your desk to spray when your eyes start to feel dry.

Smoke, dust, wind, and extreme hot or cold temps outdoors can make your eyes feel like sandpaper. Even places where the air isn't dry can be dirty with air pollution, which can dry your eyes out.

Sweat, sunscreen, and bugs are examples of other stuff that can get in your eyes when you're doing things outside. Just ask runners and bicyclists, and people cutting their grass.

Sunglasses with wraparound frames can help protect your eyes from more than the sun.

Your face may not be complete without shadow, liner, and mascara. But eye makeup can clog the openings of the glands at the base of your lashes, causing dry, gritty eyes. And when you apply eyeliner to the inside of your lash line, particles move more quickly into your eye.

Remove eye makeup from both your lashes and lids every night, using antiseptic wipes, to prevent irritation.

Wearing contact lenses often goes hand-in-hand with eye irritation. Half of contact lens wearers complain of dryness.

Change your contacts regularly to prevent protein deposits, which can leave your eyes feeling dry. You may want to opt for daily disposable lenses.

Consider switching to a silicon-based hydrogel lens that doesn't let water evaporate as easily as others. Another option: Scleral lenses that cover the colored part of your eye as well as the white area known as the sclera. They help dry eye symptoms for some people.

Surprisingly, the solution you use to clean your contacts can also irritate eyes. Some have preservatives that can be drying. Others are made with materials that may not be OK with certain types of lenses. Ask your eye doctor what to use or what ingredients to avoid.

Dry eye symptoms are so common among screen-gazers that doctors are calling it computer vision syndrome. When you're reading or looking at a TV, computer, or smartphone, your blinking rate (or blinks per minute) goes way down -- you blink only about one-third as often when you're staring at a screen of any kind.

You need to blink for two reasons: to restore the tear film and to defend the eye from stuff like particles in the air and dead cells. So the less you blink, the more your eyes pay the price.

Practice "purposeful blinking" every few minutes, and remember to take breaks. A good rule of thumb is to look away from your screen at least every 20 minutes and gaze at something 20 feet from your eyes for 20 seconds.

Drinking too little water might worsen dry eyes, particularly during hot, dry, and windy weather.

Too much alcohol can also have a drying effect. One study suggests that even a small amount can make dry eyes worse.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Aim to drink at least 8-10 glasses of water every day. If you're having a cocktail or two, drink plenty of water before, during, and after.

Researchers found that a little caffeine can boost tear production, too.

Not enough omega-3s, a kind of "good" fat, in your diet has been linked to dry eyes. Eating foods with DHA and EPA -- fatty acids found in cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, and halibut -- are one way to get your omega-3s. If you're not a fish lover, omega-3 supplements may help. Consider taking vitamin E, too, to offset any possible loss.

Lack of vitamin A has been linked to dry eyes as well, so eat your carrots -- and sweet potatoes, winter squash, bell peppers, and cantaloupe.

Early research suggests that people who are low in vitamin D sometimes have dry eyes and problems with tears. You can get vitamin D from fortified foods (like milk and OJ), the same fatty fishes that have omega-3s, and egg yolks.

Cigarette smoke can irritate and dry your eyes, whether you're a smoker yourself or are around others who are.

There's a strong link between smoking and the breakdown of tear film. Smoking also makes your eyes more sensitive.

Whether you're at work or working on a craft project at home, chemical fumes can irritate your eyes. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in cleaners, solvents, paints, furniture, carpets, even dry-cleaned clothing. They evaporate into the air when they're being used or if they're not stored properly.

Choose gentle, unscented cleaning products to cut down on VOCs. A vacuum with a HEPA filter will also help catch irritants and allergens in the air.

Wood glue and adhesives for hobbies are typically made with formaldehyde. Permanent markers can have VOCs, too. When you're crafting, work with low-VOC products, if you can, and either open windows or run a fan in the area. Then, close the containers tightly when you're done.

Swimming in a pool puts your peepers in contact with chlorine and compounds formed when it mixes with things like sweat, dirt, and personal care products. This can leave your eyes red and irritated. If you're going to spend a lot of time in the water, wear swim goggles to protect them.

While dry eyes are usually temporary and treatable, the symptom can become chronic. Ongoing dryness can cause inflammation and possibly permanent damage to the surface of your eye. If you can't get your dry eyes to clear up, see a doctor to help you figure out what's going on. You may need to see a specialist.