How Dry Eye Is Treated

Dry eyes, also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca or dry eye disease, are often treated with eye drops or ointments to restore moisture.

Dry eyes occur when your eyes don't produce enough tears. It may be an acute condition (rapidly occurring and resolving), chronic (persistent and ongoing), or recurrent.

If home remedies or over-the-counter therapies don't work, a specialist known as an ophthalmologist may be needed to provide other forms of treatment.

This article lists some of the home remedies, lifestyle changes, and medications used to treat dry eyes. It also explores what other specialist procedures are available as well as complementary and alternative therapies that may help.

Home Remedies for Dry Eye

Verywell / Laura Porter

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

There are many different reasons why dry eyes occur. It may be related to the dysfunction of certain structures of the eye, a medical condition, environmental irritants, or simply not blinking enough. Whatever the cause, there are certain self-care practices that can help.

If you struggle with dry eye, the following may help bring relief:

  • Apply a warm compress to your eyes: This can help release oils in the meibomian glands that are responsible for producing the fatty lubricants in tears.
  • Stay well hydrated: Dehydration is a contributing factor to dry eye disease. In addition to drinking plenty of water, reduce your alcohol intake, which can also contribute to dehydration.
  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke: Tobacco smoke not only irritates the eyes but causes blood vessels in the eyes to shrink. The smoke also directly breaks down fats in tears, causing them to evaporate faster.
  • Wear sunglasses when outdoors. Not only does ongoing ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun damage the cornea and retina, but it can also affect the lacrimal glands. These produce the watery portion of tears.
  • Rest your eyes: Eye strain and dry eyes go hand in hand. Take frequent breaks when working at the computer, closing your eyes a few times each hour. You should also avoid wearing contact lenses for extended periods. Give your eyes a break by wearing eyeglasses instead.
  • Optimize your environment: Use a humidifier to keep the air in your home from getting too dry. Add a high-quality air filter to remove allergens and irritants from the air.
  • Blink: As simple as this may sound, people will often stop blinking when staring at a laptop or video game. If you are constantly rubbing your eyes or find your vision changing when staring at the screen, it's probably because you are not blinking.

Medications That Cause Dry Eyes

Ask your health provider if any of the medications you are taking may be causing or contributing to dry eye symptoms. These include:

  • Antihistamines
  • Beta-blockers (used to treat high blood pressure)
  • Birth control pills
  • Isotretinoin (used to treat acne)
  • Nasal decongestants
  • Opioid pain killers
  • Sleeping pills
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

Over-the-Counter Therapies

If home remedies aren’t enough to ease your dry eyes, there are some common and relatively inexpensive over-the-counter (OTC) treatments that can help.

Artificial Tears

Lubricating eye drops are usually referred to as artificial tears. They can provide temporary relief by adding moisture and lubrication to the eye.

There are several factors to consider when choosing a lubricating eye drop:

  • Avoid preservatives: Eye drop preservatives can cause irritation, making dry eyes worse. Preservative-free eye drops have fewer additives and can be used more frequently if you have moderate to severe dry eyes.
  • Check the label: Don’t use eye drops labeled for red-eye relief. These products usually contain decongestants that will take away the redness but increase eye dryness over time.
  • Avoid overuse: Use artificial tears only as directed. Overusing artificial tears can flush out the tears your eyes naturally produce. It can also wash away oils that help tears "stick" to the surface of the eye.

Lubricant Eye Ointments

Lubricant eye ointments are a good option if artificial tears don't provide enough relief or you find yourself using artificial tears frequently. The ointments are thicker and stay in the eyes longer.

To apply a lubricant eye ointment, tilt your head back and pull down your eyelid to create a small pocket. Squeeze the ointment into that space without letting the tip of the tube touch any tissues. Blink gently and close the eye for one to two minutes. Use a tissue to wipe away excess ointment.

Useful Tip

Lubricant eye ointments can temporarily blur the vision after application, so many people prefer to use them right before bedtime.

Prescriptions

If home remedies and OTC medications fail to provide relief, talk to your healthcare provider about stronger prescription eye medications.

Prescription options for dry eye disease include:

  • Antibiotic eye drops or ointments: These medications are typically used to treat eye infections. However, they can also relieve dry eye disease by decreasing the number of bacteria that can break down the fatty oils in tears.
  • Autologous serum eye drops: These eyes drops are made by separating the liquid (serum) from your own blood and combining it with a sterile saline solution. The drops are generally reserved for severe cases when other options have failed.
  • Corticosteroid eye drops: Corticosteroids, also known as steroids, work by reducing eye inflammation and increasing the size of cells, called goblet cells, that secrete lubricants onto the surface of the eye. They are not recommended for long-term use due to the risk of glaucoma and cataracts.
  • Restasis (cyclosporine): Restasis belongs to a class of drugs called calcineurin inhibitors used to treat autoimmune diseases. The eye drops are approved for the treatment of dry eye disease. They're a good option if your dry eyes are caused by lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome.
  • Tear-stimulating drugs: Options include an eye drop called Isopto Carbine (pilocarpine) and an oral tablet called Evoxac (cevimeline), both of which can increase tear production.
  • Xiidra (lifitegrast): Xiidra is a new class of drug that blocks inflammation of the cornea (the clear outer layer of the eye) and the conjunctiva (the tissue covering the white of the eyes). The eye drops are approved specifically for the treatment of dry eye disease.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

When conservative treatments aren't working—or there's a functional issue causing your eye dryness—your ophthalmologist may explore other therapeutic measures. These include:

  • Meibomian gland cleaning: The meibomian glands can sometimes get blocked due to oils building up in the external ducts. The blockages can often be cleared by using warm compresses, eyelid-warming masks, infrared heaters, intense pulsed light therapy, or special eyelid massage.
  • Punctal occlusion: Punctal occlusion may involve the temporary occlusion (blockage) of tear ducts with silicone or collagen plugs. It can also include the permanent occlusion of tear ducts with electrocautery (in which electricity is used to burn a passage shut). Both help keep natural tears in the eyes longer.
  • Specialized contact lenses: Bandage lenses protect the eyes from environmental conditions and help stabilize the lubricants on the eye's surface. Scleral lenses, normally used to correct eye irregularities, help trap moisture in the eye due to their distinct shape.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

As holistic health practices become more popular, an increasing body of research is being devoted to the use of complementary and alternative therapies for dry eye disease. Some therapies have shown benefits in studies, but more research is needed to prove the effects.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture used in traditional Chinese medicine involves the application of thin needles to the skin to promote energy flow and healing. Some studies suggest that it may provide significant relief of dry eyes after eight weeks of treatment.

It has been proposed that acupuncture corrects imbalances in nerves, hormones, and immune responses that contribute to dry eyes, although this has yet to be proven. Further research is needed.

Omega-3 Supplements

Some studies have reported improvements in dry eye symptoms after taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats the body cannot make on its own and are needed to survive.

A 2012 review of studies published in the journal Cornea concluded that omega-3 supplements "significantly improve dry eye symptoms" in people with dry eye disease. The supplements are thought to reduce eye inflammation and improve the function of meibomian glands.

Summary

Dry eyes can often be treated with good eye care practices such as avoiding eye strain, cigarette smoke, and excessive sun exposure. Over-the-counter products like artificial tears or lubricant eye ointments can also ease symptoms.

If needed, prescription eye drops, ointments, and tablets can help stimulate tear production or suppress inflammation that contributes to dry eye disease. Alternative therapies like acupuncture or omega-3 fatty acid supplements may also help.

If these measures fail to provide relief, speak with an ophthalmologist who may recommend specialized procedures like punctal occlusion or meibomian gland cleaning. These procedures can treat some of the functional causes of dry eye disease.

A Word From Verywell

It can sometimes take trial and error to find the right solution for dry eye disease. Have patience and work closely with your healthcare provider while doing your best to take care of your eyes.

If your symptoms persist despite treatment by an ophthalmologist, ask about other possible causes of dry eye disease. These can include autoimmune disorders, thyroid problems, Parkinson's disease, and vitamin A deficiency. By widening the investigation, you may be able to pinpoint the cause and find the most effective treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes dry eyes?

    There are numerous causes of dry eyes (keratoconjunctivitis sicca), including:

    • Aging
    • Allergic eye disease
    • Autoimmune diseases
    • Certain medications
    • Environmental irritants
    • Extreme cold, wind, or dryness
    • Eyelid or tear duct problems
    • Sarcoidosis
    • Scleroderma
    • Thyroid disorders
    • Vitamin A deficiency
  • What are risks factors for dry eye disease?

    Older age is one of the prime risk factors for dry eye disease. Females are more vulnerable due to hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, menopause, or birth control pills. Wearing contact lenses is also a risk factor along with having refractive eye surgery (including LASIX surgery).

  • What are possible complications of dry eyes?

    If left untreated, dry eye disease can lead to:

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.