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Causes of Dry Eye and What You Can Do About It

woman using eye drops

Are your eyes itchy, scratchy, burning, or red? Are you having trouble seeing things, especially while driving at night? Do you find it difficult to insert your contact lenses without having them fall out? Do you wish your eyes would stop watering? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions then you may be suffering from dry eye, a condition that effects as many as 5 million Americans age 50 or older. But what causes dry eye and how can you treat it? Read on to find out more.

Causes of Dry Eye


Changes in hormones can cause dry eyes for both men and women. Giacomina Massaro-Giordano, MD, Co-Director of the Penn Dry Eye & Ocular Surface Center, explains, “hormone changes for both women and men can affect the glands in the eyelids that produce meibum (oil) which prevents the evaporation of tears.” Women are more likely than men to experience dry eye due to their hormones. This is especially true for women after the age of 50 when they begin to experience menopause. Dr. Massaro-Giordano adds that “men who are taking anti-androgen medications, which are used to regulate testosterone levels in the body, may also be affected by dry eye.”


Hormones and conditions like menopause are not the only bodily changes that can affect our eyes as we get older. Our eyes are also affected by a decrease in our heart’s ability to function as we age. As we get older our hearts may develop slightly lower heart rates, an increase in size that results in a decrease in the amount of blood it can hold, increased risk of arrhythmias, and a slight degeneration of the heart muscle. In addition, blood vessels may also thicken which can cause higher blood pressure levels. So how does this affect our eyes? All of these conditions can decrease the blood flow to our eyes, causing them to become drier. The aging process can also affect our eyes by naturally slowing down our production of mucous, oil, and water which make up our tears.


Let’s face it: as we get older and our bodies age, we end up developing new ailments that need to be treated with medication. Unfortunately, these medications can contribute to dry eye. Antidepressants, antihistamines, muscle relaxants, sleeping pills, birth control pills, and pain relievers are especially known for contributing to dry eye. The reason for this is because most of these medications block histamine, reduce blood flow, slow heart rate, block nerve impulses, and alter hormones – all things that can cause dry eye.

Dry air

Did you ever notice how being in a dry, air conditioned or heated room or outdoors on a high-pollen day can cause your eyes to water, itch, and burn? There’s a reason for that: lack of moisture in the air can really do a number on your eyes. This is because the dry air causes the tears in our eyes to evaporate. Additionally, elements in the environment like smoke or dust can also irritate and dry out our eyes.

Eyelid problems

Blinking allows your body to re-wet your eyes while flushing away dust and particles that can cause dryness and irritation throughout the day. Do you have trouble blinking or keeping your eyes closed? If so, it may be time to see a doctor. Problems with your eyelids that keep you from blinking may result in severe dry eye.

Additionally, if your eyelids are itchy, that could also be a sign that it’s time to make an appointment to see your eye doctor. You may assume it’s just allergies and self-treat with eye drops, but this can actually make matters worse. Dr. Massaro-Giordano explains, “many patients who have "itchy" eyelids assume that this is due to allergies, when in fact it's dry eye (blepharitis*, in particular). They then take antihistamines, oral or drop form, which then dries the eyes out even further.”

*One of the most common eyelid conditions is known as blepharitis, or inflammation of the eyelids. This condition causes dryness and at times crusting around the eyes, blurred vision, redness, swelling, and irritation.

Tips for Prevention

So, now that you know what causes dry eye, how can you prevent it? Here are some tips.

Visit your doctor

If you are experiencing dry eye symptoms, a quick trip to your doctor can help. Ask your doctor to see if any of your current medications or pre-existing conditions could be the issue. They may also refer you to see an eye doctor who can determine if your dry eye is caused by an infection or eye condition.

Invest in a humidifier

A humidifier will help to eliminate dry air in your home or office. This will ensure that the air around you doesn’t dry out or harm your eyes.

Use eye drops or artificial tears

Eye drops or artificial tears will allow you to re-wet your eyes and add in lost moisture. This is the most common treatment method for dry eye.

Schedule an eye exam

An ophthalmologist can conduct a thorough eye exam and identify any medical conditions such as blepharitis that may be causing dry eye. Dr. Massaro-Giordano explains, “If an individual is experiencing any of these symptoms, it is imperative that they undergo a thorough eye/eyelid examination by an ophthalmologist to determine if their eyes are dry or irritated for other reasons. There are also many autoimmune conditions that present with dry eyes, so this is another way that the doctor can help with the patient’s overall health.”

Learn more about the latest in dry eye treatments at Penn Medicine. Attend our upcoming information session with Dr. Massaro-Giordano at Penn Medicine Radnor on June 27, 2017. To register call 610-902-2213.

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