How Dry Eye Is Treated

Dry eye happens when your eyes don't make enough tears to stay wet or when your tears don't work correctly. It can be brief and passing or chronic. Home remedies and lifestyle changes may help with dry eye. Your doctor may also recommend over-the-counter eye drops or artificial tears as treatment. If the condition persists, however, you may need prescription medications or other procedures like placing punctal plugs to block your tear ducts. The cause of your dry eye will dictate which treatment is most effective for your dry eye.

a woman taking care of her eyes

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Home Remedies and Lifestyle

If you struggle with dry eye, there are a few things you can do at home that may bring relief:

  • Apply a warm compress to your eyes. This can help release oil in your eyelids' glands, helping to improve the quality of your tears.
  • Protect your eyes from the sun and wind with sunglasses or other eyewear.
  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Avoid alcohol and reduce consumption of other substances that can cause dehydration.
  • Avoid smoking and exposure to cigarette smoke.
  • Rest your eyes—especially if you look at a computer monitor for an extended period of time. Take breaks and close your eyes a few times each hour.
  • Use a humidifier to keep the air in your home from getting too dry.
  • Add a high-quality air filter to your home to remove allergens and irritants from the air.
  • Take a break from your contact lenses if you wear them. Wear eyeglasses instead.
  • Talk to your doctor about medications that may be causing or making your dry eye worse, such as aspirin, opioids, and antidepressants.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

When home remedies aren't enough to treat your dry eye, some over-the-counter treatments can help.

Artificial Tears

Lubricating eye drops are usually referred to as artificial tears. They are a popular choice for treating dry eye due to temporary causes, such as being tired or being in a dry climate. They help relieve dry eye by adding moisture to your eyes. However, several factors should be taken into consideration when choosing lubricating eye drops.

The safest artificial tears have no preservatives. Eye drops with preservatives may cause extra irritation, especially for people with severe dry eye. Preservative-free eye drops have fewer additives, and are usually recommended for those with moderate to severe dry eye. 

Don't use eye drops labeled for red eye relief. These products usually contain decongestants that will take away the redness, but may make the dryness worse over time.

Use artificial tears as directed on the label. Do not use larger or smaller amounts than recommended. If you normally use contact lenses, wait 15 minutes after applying the eye drops before putting them on. Always wash your hands before putting eye drops in your eyes.

For more severe dry eye, you may need to use a lubricating ointment or gel.

Ointments

Ointments are another over-the-counter option for treating dry eyes. Their formulas are thicker and stay in the eyes longer. Ointments may temporarily blur your vision after applying, so many people prefer to use them right before bed.

To apply a lubricating 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 your eye. Blink your eye gently and close it for one to two minutes. Use a tissue to wipe away any excess ointment.

Prescriptions

If home remedies and over-the-counter solutions are not helping, talk to your doctor. They will prescribe medications that can help, including:

  • Antibiotic drops or ointments like tetracyclines and macrolides can reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms of blepharitis, which can cause dry eye. Blepharitis causes inflammation of the eyelids, which can keep the oil glands from releasing oil into your tears. Oil is an essential component of tears because it coats your eyes and prevent the water in tears from evaporating.
  • Autologous serum eye drops are made from serum from your blood and combined with saline to create a lubricating fluid rich in nutrients and growth factors that may be missing in very dry eyes. Your doctor may recommend these eye drops if your dry eye is not responding to other forms of treatment.
  • Cyclosporine (Cequa, Restasis) or lifitegrast (Xiidra) can reduce inflammation and help your eyes produce more tears. These are usually given in severe and chronic cases of dry eye. Doctors may recommend cyclosporine medications, including Restasis and Cequa, if you have an autoimmune disease that can cause an inflammation of the lacrimal gland and affect tear production like lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome.
  • Topical corticosteroid drops can rapidly and effectively relieve the symptoms and signs of moderate or severe dry eye. They work by treating the inflammation of the cornea. However, they are not recommended for long-term use because of potential side effects, such as increased infections and cataract formation.
  • Tear-stimulating drugs like pilocarpine and cevimeline can increase tear production. These drugs are available as pills, gel, or eye drops.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

When none of the above treatments relieve your dry eye or there is an anatomical issue that is causing your dry eye, there are procedures performed by an ophthalmologist or surgeon that can treat your condition, including:

  • Cleaning the eyelids: This is done to address meibomian gland dysfunction. The lipid produced by this gland can be melted and cleared away at certain temperatures using warm compresses, eyelid warming masks, infrared heaters, intense pulsed light therapy, or special eyelid massage.
  • Blocking tear ducts (punctal occlusion): Punctal plugs are small silicone or collagen plugs that are used to temporarily block tear ducts, which allows your natural tears to stay in your eyes longer. They can be removed later, or your doctor may recommend closing your tear ducts permanently with thermal cautery. Punctal plugs are believed to be relatively safe, but their use is commonly associated with epiphora (an overflow of tears) and corneal and conjunctival irritation, like canaliculitis and dacryocystitis (infection of the lacrimal sac).
  • Getting special contact lenses: Lenses that are normally used for other purposes like bandage lenses and scleral lenses can improve hydration and address problems on the surface of the eye that cause dryness. Bandage lenses can improve tear film stability and lessen dry eye discomfort. Scleral lenses are normally used to treat irregularities in the cornea and refractive errors, but they can also be used to relieve dry eyes because they don't irritate the cornea like other contact lenses do and their design ensures constant hydration of the eye.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

As functional and holistic healthcare practices become more popular, more research looking into the benefits of these therapies has been conducted. Several alternative and complementary treatments can relieve dry eye, including:

  • Omega-3 supplements: Studies have shown improvement in dry eye symptoms after people took omega-3 fatty acid supplements. It has also been reported that people can get relief from dry eyes by consuming omega-3-rich foods like salmon, sardines, and flax seeds. One theory hypothesizes that omega-3 helps with dry eye by reducing inflammation. Another proposes that omega-3 improves function in the eye’s meibomian glands.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine therapy where thin needles are used to promote energy flow and healing. Studies have shown improvement in dry eye after eight weeks of acupuncture treatment. It is hypothesized that the therapeutic effect of acupuncture for dry eye comes from the nervous, hormonal, and immunological systems closely tied to the etiology of dry eye.

A Word From Verywell

There are several ways to approach dry eye, and the first step towards finding the right solution is figuring out why you have dry eye. Be sure to talk to you doctor to rule out any chronic diseases or more serious eye conditions.

Regardless of what is causing your dry eyes, there are many treatments that can help, and there is no one perfect solution for everyone. You may need to find a combination of therapies that include home remedies, over-the-counter, prescription, and even alternative treatments. Make sure you discuss what treatments are safe for you with your doctor, and use caution when putting anything in your eyes.

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