Most people who work in an air-conditioned office and spend long hours staring at a computer screen will have experienced this sensation at some point towards the end of their work day. It is usually caused by ‘dry eye’ where the eye surface dries and becomes inflamed. It is a common condition affecting 1 in 4 people in the UK, and while it is not a serious condition, it tends to require ongoing treatment on a long-term basis.  

Who gets dry eyes?

Dry eye affects people of any age, but the chances of developing the condition are higher among certain groups. This includes older people, women experiencing hormone changes and those who use certain medications (e.g. antidepressants). Dry eye can also occur after certain types of laser surgery, but it is usually self-limiting as damaged nerves regenerate over the coming weeks to months.

Each time you blink, a thin layer of tears (tear film) spreads like wipers across the surface of your eye, helping to maintain good health and clear vision. The tear film is made up of 3 layers:

When one or more layer is of poor quality or lacking in thickness (e.g. in an eye prone to blockage of ‘meibomian’ glands), the tears can’t cover the eye surface adequately leaving it exposed and dry.

How does it affect my eyes?

People experience dry eye in a range of ways – from mild redness and irritation to grittiness, burning and foreign-body sensation (a phantom sensation of ‘something in the eye’). It often surprises people that a common symptom of dry eye is watery eyes! This is caused by ‘reflex tearing’, where our eyes overproduce tears in an attempt to alleviate the dryness. While this should be helpful, these ‘reflex’ tears are of poor quality and drain away quickly. This means they do little to improve eye comfort and can blur your vision. The vision can fluctuate further with rapid drying of the tear layer, which creates the illusion of looking through a frosted window in between eye blinks.

What can I do to prevent dry eyes?

Here are some steps you can follow:

What can I do to relieve the symptoms of dry eyes?

There is a wide range of artificial tear drops, gels, and ointments readily available to alleviate the symptoms of dry eye. Keep in mind that their purpose is to supplement your natural tears, and not to treat the underlying cause of dry eye. Many preparations are preservative-free, and they do not contain active ingredients such as antibiotics. This means you can use them regularly on a long-term basis without harming your eye health. You may need to try a few preparations to find the combination that works best for you. For example, a person with pronounced dry eye may use drops/ gels every 4 hours during the day and ointment before bed. Here are some recommendations: