Dry eye syndrome, or dry eye disease, is a common condition that occurs when the eyes don’t make enough tears, or the tears evaporate too quickly.

This leads to the eyes drying out and becoming red, swollen and irritated.

Dry eye syndrome is also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or simply “dry eyes”.

Symptoms of dry eye syndrome

The symptoms of dry eye syndrome are mild for most people, although more severe cases can be painful and lead to complications.

Symptoms usually affect both eyes and often include:

  • feelings of dryness, grittiness or soreness that get worse throughout the day
  • burning and red eyes
  • eyelids that stick together when you wake up
  • temporarily blurred vision, which usually improves when you blink

Some people may also have episodes of watering eyes, which can occur if the eye tries to relieve the irritation by producing more tears.

When to get medical advice

See your high-street optician (optometrist) if you have persistent but mild symptoms of dry eye syndrome.

They can examine you to check if the problem is caused by an underlying condition, or they may refer you to an eye specialist.

Contact your optometrist or GP immediately if you have any severe symptoms. If this isn’t possible, visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.

What causes dry eye syndrome?

Dry eye syndrome can occur when the complex tear production process is disrupted in some way. There are many different reasons why this can happen, although a single identifiable cause often can’t be found.

Common causes include:

Although the condition may affect people of any age, your chances of developing dry eye syndrome increase as you grow older.

It’s estimated up to 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 experiences problems with dry eyes.

Dry eye syndrome is more common in women than men.

Read more about the causes of dry eye syndrome.

How dry eye syndrome is treated

Dry eye syndrome isn’t usually a serious condition. The symptoms can often be eased using self-help measures such as:

  • avoiding hot, smoky or dusty environments
  • wearing sunglasses to help protect your eyes
  • keeping your eyes and eyelids clean
  • including omega-3 fats (found in certain types of fish) in your diet

Read more about self-help for dry eye syndrome.

If your symptoms persist or are more severe, a number of other treatments are available, including:

  • eye drops, gels or ointments to lubricate the eyes (these are available from pharmacists without a prescription)
  • medications to reduce any inflammation
  • if necessary, surgery, to prevent tears from draining away easily

If dry eye syndrome is caused by an underlying condition, treating this condition usually helps to relieve the symptoms.

Read more about treating dry eye syndrome.

Further problems

Although dry eye syndrome may be uncomfortable, it doesn’t usually cause any serious problems. The 2 main complications associated with dry eye syndrome are:

  • conjunctivitis – inflammation of the conjunctiva, the transparent layer of cells that covers the white part of the eyeball and the inner surfaces of the eyelids; most cases are mild and don’t need specific treatment
  • inflammation of the cornea – in rare cases, severe untreated dry eye syndrome can damage the surface of the cornea (keratitis); this damage can make the cornea vulnerable to ulceration and infection, which could potentially threaten your sight

Contact your optometrist or GP, or visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department immediately if you have any of the following symptoms, as they could be a sign of a more serious condition:

  • extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • very painful or red eyes
  • a deterioration in your vision