Tests and procedures that may be used to determine the cause of your dry eyes include:
- A comprehensive eye exam. An eye exam that includes a complete history of your overall health and your eye health can help your doctor diagnose the cause of your dry eyes.
A test to measure the volume of your tears. Your doctor may measure your tear production using the Schirmer test. In this test, blotting strips of paper are placed under your lower eyelids. After five minutes your doctor measures the amount of strip soaked by your tears.
Another option for measuring tear volume is the phenol red thread test. In this test, a thread filled with pH-sensitive dye (tears change the dye color) is placed over the lower eyelid, wetted with tears for 15 seconds and then measured for tear volume.
- A test to determine the quality of your tears. Other tests use special dyes in eyedrops to determine the surface condition of your eyes. Your doctor looks for staining patterns on the corneas and measures how long it takes before your tears evaporate.
- A tear osmolarity test. This type of test measures the composition of particles and water in your tears. With dry eye disease, there will be less water in your eyes.
- Tear samples to look for markers of dry eye disease, including elevated matrix metalloproteinase-9 or decreased lactoferrin.
For most people with occasional or mild dry eye symptoms, it's enough to regularly use over-the-counter eyedrops (artificial tears). If your symptoms are persistent and more serious, you have other options. What you do depends on what's causing your dry eyes.
Some treatments focus on reversing or managing a condition or factor that's causing your dry eyes. Other treatments can improve your tear quality or stop your tears from quickly draining away from your eyes.
Treating the underlying cause of dry eyes
In some cases, treating an underlying health issue can help clear up the signs and symptoms of dry eyes. For instance, if a medication is causing your dry eyes, your doctor may recommend a different medication that doesn't cause that side effect.
If you have an eyelid condition, such as your lids turned outwards (ectropion), your doctor may refer you to an eye surgeon who specializes in plastic surgery of the eyelids (oculoplastic surgeon).
Prescription medications used to treat dry eyes include:
- Drugs to reduce eyelid inflammation. Inflammation along the edge of your eyelids can keep oil glands from secreting oil into your tears. Your doctor may recommend antibiotics to reduce inflammation. Antibiotics for dry eyes are usually taken by mouth, though some are used as eyedrops or ointments.
- Eyedrops to control cornea inflammation. Inflammation on the surface of your eyes (cornea) may be controlled with prescription eyedrops that contain the immune-suppressing medication cyclosporine (Restasis) or corticosteroids. Corticosteroids are not ideal for long-term use due to possible side effects.
- Eye inserts that work like artificial tears. If you have moderate to severe dry eye symptoms and artificial tears don't help, another option may be a tiny eye insert that looks like a clear grain of rice. Once a day, you place the hydroxypropyl cellulose (Lacrisert) insert between your lower eyelid and your eyeball. The insert dissolves slowly, releasing a substance that's used in eyedrops to lubricate your eye.
- Tear-stimulating drugs. Drugs called cholinergics (pilocarpine, cevimeline) help increase tear production. These drugs are available as pills, gel or eyedrops. Possible side effects include sweating.
- Eyedrops made from your own blood. These are called autologous blood serum drops. They may be an option if you have severe dry eye symptoms that don't respond to any other treatment. To make these eyedrops, a sample of your blood is processed to remove the red blood cells and then mixed with a salt solution.
Other procedures that may be used to treat dry eyes include:
Closing your tear ducts to reduce tear loss. Your doctor may suggest this treatment to keep your tears from leaving your eye too quickly. This can be done by partially or completely closing your tear ducts, which normally serve to drain tears away.
Tear ducts can be plugged with tiny silicone plugs (punctal plugs). These are removable. Or tear ducts can be plugged with a procedure that uses heat. This is a more permanent solution called thermal cautery.
Using special contact lenses. Ask your doctor about newer contact lenses designed to help people with dry eyes.
Some people with severe dry eyes may opt for special contact lenses that protect the surface of the eyes and trap moisture. These are called scleral lenses or bandage lenses.
- Unblocking oil glands. Warm compresses or eye masks used daily can help clear up blocked oil glands. A thermal pulsation device is another way to unclog the oil glands, but it is unclear whether this method provides any advantage over warm compresses.
- Using light therapy and eyelid massage. A technique called intense-pulsed light therapy followed by massage of the eyelids has proved to help people with severe dry eyes.
Lifestyle and home remedies
You may be able to manage your dry eyes with frequent eyelid washing and use of over-the-counter (OTC) eyedrops or other products that help lubricate your eyes. If your condition is long term (chronic), use eyedrops even when your eyes feel fine to keep them well lubricated.
Selecting and using OTC products for dry eyes
A variety of nonprescription products for dry eyes are available, including eyedrops (artificial tears), gels and ointments. Talk with your doctor about which might be best for you.
Artificial tears may be all you need to control mild dry eye symptoms. Some people need to put drops in several times a day, and some use them only once a day.
Consider these factors when selecting an OTC product:
Preservative vs. nonpreservative drops. Preservatives are added to some eyedrops to prolong shelf life. You can use eyedrops with preservatives up to four times a day. But using the preservative drops more often can cause eye irritation.
Nonpreservative eyedrops come in packages that contain multiple single-use vials. After you use a vial, you throw it away. If you rely on eyedrops more than four times a day, nonpreservative drops are safe.
- Drops vs. ointments. Lubricating eye ointments coat your eyes, providing longer lasting relief from dry eyes. But these products are thicker than eyedrops and can cloud your vision. For this reason, ointments are best used just before bedtime. Eyedrops can be used at any time and won't interfere with your vision.
- Drops that reduce redness. It's best to avoid these as your solution for dry eyes, as prolonged use can cause irritation.
Washing your eyelids to control inflammation
For people with blepharitis and other conditions that cause eyelid inflammation that blocks the flow of oil to the eye, frequent and gentle eyelid washing may help. To wash your eyelids:
- Apply a warm washcloth to your eyes. Wet a clean cloth with warm water. Hold the cloth over your eyes for five minutes. Rewet the cloth with warm water when it cools. Gently rub the washcloth over your eyelids — including the base of the eyelashes — to loosen any debris.
- Use a mild soap on your eyelids. Use baby shampoo or another mild soap. Put the cleanser on your clean fingertips and gently massage your closed eyes near the base of your eyelashes. Rinse completely.
Further study is needed, but some alternative medicine approaches may help relieve your dry eye symptoms. Discuss the benefits and risks with your doctor.
- Fatty acids. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet may help relieve dry eye signs and symptoms. These are available as supplements and in foods such as flaxseed, salmon and sardines.
- Castor oil eyedrops. These eyedrops may improve symptoms by reducing tear evaporation.
- Acupuncture. Some people have seen their dry eye symptoms improve after acupuncture therapy.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. He or she may then refer you to an eye specialist (ophthalmologist). Because appointments can be brief, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment.
What you can do
- List any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- List key personal information, including any recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins and supplements that you're taking.
- List questions to ask your doctor.
For dry eyes, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of my dry eyes?
- Do I need any tests?
- Can dry eyes get better on their own?
- What are my treatment options?
- What are the potential side effects of each treatment?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage these conditions together?
- Is a generic drug available for the medicine you're prescribing me?
- Do you have any brochures or other printed material that I can take with me?
- What websites do you recommend?
- Do I need to plan for a follow-up visit?
Don't hesitate to ask additional questions that may occur to you during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask:
- Can you describe your symptoms?
- Do you recall when you first began experiencing symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- Do other members of your family have dry eyes?
- Have you tried over-the-counter eyedrops? Did they provide relief?
- Are your symptoms worse in the morning or late in the day?
- What medications do you take?
- Have you had any radiation to the head or neck?
What you can do in the meantime
To relieve your signs and symptoms while you wait for your appointment, try over-the-counter eyedrops. Look for lubricating eyedrops (artificial tears) and avoid those that advocate reducing redness in the eyes. Eyedrops that reduce eye redness can cause additional eye irritation.