Chronic Dry Eyes: Symptoms, Causes and What You Can Do

in Health by

Dry, itchy eyes are no fun. You rub and you rub, but the feeling like you’ve got dirt in your eyes won’t go away. Nothing helps until you buy a bottle of artificial tears and drop them in for relief. Eventually you realize that the four doses allowed per day aren’t enough. If this sounds familiar, you may have chronic dry eyes. This condition is known to millions of Americans, yet chronic dry eyes are treatable. Knowing what leads to dry eyes can help you reduce symptoms and treat the underlying cause. 

What are chronic dry eyes?

Dry eyes occur in many Americans each year, but chronic dry eyes persist past a change in environment or habit. 

This is called Dry Eye Syndrome or DES. It’s an ongoing condition that lasts weeks or months at a time. The symptoms may improve but then return after some time. 

The problem occurs in the tear film. The cornea, or eye’s surface, has a tear film made of water, mucus, and oil layers. Each layer must produce enough moisture to keep the eye’s surface in balance. When one element reduces its production, dry eye results.

Some people get dry eyes from lack of tears. This occurs when the watery layer of the tear film malfunctions. People with low tear production can boost it with artificial tear eye drops.

Other people get dry eyes from poor quality tears. This occurs when the oily layer malfunctions, allowing tears to evaporate too quickly. People with poor quality tears should take measures to keep tears in their eyes. 

There are environmental and medical solutions for both types of chronic dry eyes. Sometimes, however, dry eyes are caused by underlying conditions, such as diabetes and herpes zoster. In these cases, dry eyes can only be resolved by treating the underlying cause.

Most often, people who have dry eyes are middle-aged or older. An estimated 4.88 million Americans age 50 and older have dry eyes. Of these, over 3 million are women and 1.68 million are men.

There are several reasons why more women have dry eyes than men. For one, dry eyes can occur as a side effect of estrogen fluctuations. Women who are pregnant, taking birth control pills, or in menopause may also have dry eyes.

Facts about chronic dry eyes

Many people who have dry eyes can find relief simply by changing their environment. Others, however, have real medical conditions that prevent them from living with moist eyes. Here’s a look at the different symptoms, causes, and treatments for chronic dry eyes.


If you have chronic dry eyes, your eyes likely feel heavy and dry. You may have trouble focusing on everyday tasks, and things may get cloudy now and then. 

Symptoms of dry eyes also include:

night driving problems

discomfort when wearing contacts

burning, itching, or stinging sensations

light sensitivity

eyes that are watery at times, then completely dry at others

red and sore eyelids

mucus secreting from the eye in a string-like texture


Sometimes the cause is a medical condition that, when treated, can improve dry eyes. Treating the root cause can help you find a permanent solution to the problem. 

Dry eyes can be caused by:

medications for high blood pressure, like beta-blockers or diuretics

sleeping pills

medications to lower anxiety


being in a dry or smoky environment on a long-term basis


herpes zoster

wearing contact lens 

eye surgeries like laser surgery

autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren’s syndrome

All of these causes impact the oil glands, tear ducts, or corneas in some way. 


An eye doctor often confirms a dry eye diagnosis. In general, your eye doctor will:

ask about your medical history

perform an eye exam to inspect the exterior of your eye, including the eyelids, tear ducts and how you blink

examine your cornea and the interior of your eye 

measure the quality of your tear film

Once your eye doctor knows these things, it’s easier to pursue a course of treatment. Measuring the quality of your tears is important, for instance. One thing that is common in all people with dry eyes is abnormal tear quality.

Chronic dry eyes can be painful and distracting, but they’re also treatable. You can get treatment to relieve your symptoms, perhaps even long-term. Your eyes are worth taking care of, no matter how old you are.

– By Sonia Pearson;

Medically Reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD.

Exclusive content from CARE Magazine