In the medical world, dry eye is technically called keratoconjunctivitis sicca. It’s a pretty Harry Potter-sounding way of saying that if you have this condition, your eyes might feel dry, itchy, and all-around crappy for reasons you might not entirely understand. So, here’s the deal with dry eye (and how you might be making things worse without realizing it).
Dry eye happens when the amount or quality of your tears doesn’t keep the surface of your eyeballs well-lubricated.
When we say “tears,” we mean the tear film that covers your eyes all the time to help keep them moist, not the ones that spill over when you’re upset, happy, or a particularly well-crafted commercial hits you right in the feels. When you blink your eyes, this tear film spreads across them and keeps your eyes lubed up and content.
There are three layers that make up this tear film, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI):
- At the bottom, there’s a mucous-based layer that binds with water to keep your eyes moist. This is made by cells called goblet cells.
- Then there’s a middle layer of water and water-soluble proteins, made by your lacrimal glands (located under your eyebrows) to nourish your corneas (the clear, dome-shaped surfaces of your eyes) and conjunctiva (the mucous membranes that cover the whites of your eyes and your eyelids).
- Finally, there’s an oily outer layer, which keeps your tears from evaporating too quickly. Your Meibomian glands, which are under your eyelids, produce this layer.
If anything is off with any of these tear layers, you can end up with dry eye. “Dry eye is an inflammatory disease,” Phillip Yuhas, O.D. a clinical instructor at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF. “The longer the ocular surface is inflamed, the more uncomfortable the patient becomes.” This can cause symptoms like dryness, stinging, pain, burning, itching, and sensitivity to light, among a ton of others. And certain habits can make these symptoms even worse. Here are seven things you might be doing to exacerbate your dry eye.
1. You work at your computer for hours without resting your eyes.
If this describes Monday through Friday for you, kudos on your work ethic, but giving your eyes a break is important, Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an optometrist at UCLA Health, tells SELF. Staring at your screen for long periods of time can make you blink less often than you should, according to the NEI. Since blinking is necessary for you to spread that tear film across your eyeballs, this can cause dryness and related discomfort.
If it’s pretty much in your job description to be chained to your computer, Dr. Shibayama recommends taking a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look 20 feet away. Known as the 20-20-20 rule, this helps restore your natural blinking rhythm. If you can’t remember to do this every 20 minutes, set a timer on your computer to help you out until it becomes a natural part of your routine.
2. You fall asleep in your contacts.
This is so! bad! for your eyes! Wearing contacts makes you more susceptible to dry eye to begin with, according to the Mayo Clinic. Since your contacts have to stick to your corneas in order to work, they can be irritating and cause dryness, Mina Massaro-Giordano, M.D., co-director of the Penn Dry Eye & Ocular Surface Center and a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania, tells SELF. This is true even if your contacts are technically approved for overnight wear.
Your eyes become even more parched if you spend hours dozing in your contacts, depriving them of the oxygen and nutrients they need. Bottom line: Always remember to take your contacts out before you go to sleep.
3. You don’t wear sunglasses when it’s windy outside.
Windy environments increase tear evaporation, the NEI says, and that can make your already dry eyeballs even drier. “It’s a similar phenomenon to drying your hands under the blower of a public restroom,” Dr. Yuhas says.
Your best bet is to wear sunglasses when you go out in these kinds of conditions, the NEI says, ideally ones that wrap around to protect your eyes from all angles.
4. You’re on certain medications that sap moisture from your eyeballs.
Hey, so this is interesting/crummy: A wide range of medications that you may need to take for various health conditions can make dry eye worse. That includes some antihistamines, decongestants, antidepressants, birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy to relieve symptoms of menopause, and medications for anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, and high blood pressure, the NEI says. That’s…a long list.
These all have different mechanisms that can lead to eye dryness in different ways, Dr. Shibayama says. The point is, if you recently went on a new medication and your dry eye has gotten worse, talk to your doctor about which other options might be available for you.
5. You or your partner smokes.
We know you’re already aware, but smoking can have many ill effects on your health. Your eyes are no exception, and being exposed to smoke or secondhand smoke can make dry eye worse, the NEI says. Smoking is thought to decrease some of the nutrients necessary for healthy eyes and potentially cause a breakdown in tear film. Also, smoke is just straight-up irritating to your eyeballs, Dr. Yuhas explains. All of these factors might worsen your dry eye.
6. You recently had laser eye surgery.
During laser eye surgery, your doctor will change the shape of your corneas so you can see better, according to the Mayo Clinic. One potential result, along with improved eyesight, is dry eye due to decreased tear production. Luckily, this is usually temporary, the NEI says.
If you’re interested in laser eye surgery, talk to your eye doctor about your dry eye in advance to see what you can do leading up to your procedure and in the immediate aftermath to help keep your dry eye from getting worse, like regularly using eye drops.
7. You use eye drops that promise to reduce redness.
Some eye drops are meant to eliminate as much redness from your eyes as possible. They can indeed do this, but only for a short period of time, after which they can cause a rebound effect where the redness gets worse as the medication wears off, Dr. Yuhas says. The preservatives in the drops can also irritate the surfaces of your eyes, which doesn’t do your dry eye symptoms any favors, Dr. Yuhas says.
If you’re dealing with eye redness, talk to your eye doctor about what might be going on instead of relying on drops that could just make the issue worse.
If your dry eye seems to be getting more intense and you can’t pinpoint (and easily fix) the reason, talk to your doctor.
You don’t need to just accept dry eye as some idiosyncrasy that comes with living in your particular body. Doctors can probably help! They might suggest using eye drops to add moisture or medications to decrease inflammation and irritation, or talk to you about surgical intervention to increase the quality of your tears or make them less likely to evaporate too quickly. Whatever the treatment method, there’s likely something out there that can help you tame your dry eye.