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Whether it’s caused by cold weather, screen-time or ageing, we asked an optometrist the best way to care for dry, uncomfortable, stinging eyes

If your eyes are itchy, sore, gritty, red, blurry, sensitive to light or more watery than usual after a long day, you may put it down to tiredness, but with one-in-four people affected, you could be suffering from dry eyes (also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca or dry eye syndrome). However, these symptoms could be caused by other conditions, so consult your pharmacist who can advise whether you need to see your GP or optician, which may be suggested if you still have dry eyes after trying treatments for a few weeks or there's any change in the shape of your eyelids. 

Tears are made up of water, oil and mucus. Dry eye syndrome happens when the chemical balance of the tears is thrown off, the eyes don’t produce enough tears or they evaporate too quickly.

“While it won’t cause blindness, it can cause discomfort, blurry vision and eye damage,” explains optometrist and clinical advisor at the College of Optometrists Daniel Hardiman-McCartney. “We’ve seen a big increase in dry eyes since the pandemic started because people are forced to use their eyes in a different way when staying at home – often glued to screens for work and leisure. During screen-time your blink isn’t complete, which can cause tears to stagnate and their quality to deteriorate.”

While treatable, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to dry eyes meaning that 97% of sufferers report feeling frustrated by their condition and 1-in-3 can’t find relief with the treatments readily available to them. 

“There are many and potentially numerous causes for dry eyes and so it’s often a case of trial and error finding out which one works for you,” says Hardiman-McCartney.

Whatever the cause, the best way to help prevent dry eyes is to use the 20-20-20 rule. “Every 20 mins take a 20-second screen break and look at something 20 feet away,” explains Hardiman-McCartney. 

“During your break, screw up your eyes and do exaggerated blinks. This washes away stagnant tears from your eyes, refreshes them and improves their quality.”

Read on to discover the common causes of dry eyes and what you can do to ease symptoms.

1. Hormones, ageing, cold weather, late nights and overuse of computers

This group of causes leads to what is known as marginal dry eye. Studies show that women using contraception, during menstruation and menopause are at higher risk of experiencing dry eye because of fluctuating hormones.

The condition is much more common in people over the age of 50 because the glands that make tears, particularly the oily part, become less effective with age and they spread across the eye less well and lose their ability to cling to the eye’s surface as you get older.

Younger people might experience the same effect in autumn and winter when dry, cold winds blow and cause eyes to stream.

“It sounds unlikely, but all of these dry eye causes can lead the tears to become more watery,” says Hardiman-McCartney. “Oily or lipid drops or sprays are most effective for these causes.”

These over-the-counter drops restore eye moisture with lubricating ingredients including glycerin and natural oils. Use them when you feel discomfort. Consider preservative-free drops for more frequent use. Look for contact-lens safe formulas if you’re a lens wearer.

Consider: Boots Itchy & Watery Eyes Eye Drops (£2.99)

• Contains natural plant extracts to relieve the symptoms of itchiness and irritation associated with wind and computer-screen use.

How to use: Gently squeeze 1 to 2 drops in each eye and blink 2 or 3 times. Use as often as required.

Consider: Boots Night Gel Drops – Dry & Irritated Eyes (£7.99)

• Restores and repairs dry and irritated eyes overnight providing instant hydration and relief. 

“Gels can be worth trying if your eyes tend to become dry overnight,” advises Hardiman-McCartney.

Try: Optase Eye Spray - Preservative Free (£15.99)

• Sprayed on closed lids, sea buckthorn seed oil, which is made up of Omega 3 and other fatty acids, strengthens the tear film lipid layer and protects eyes from drying out.

“If you’re not a fan of drops, sprays are good because you apply to closed eyes,” explains Hardiman-McCartney. “They coat the lashes and eyelid margins with oil and then seeps into the tears as you blink.”

Try: The Eye Doctor Essential Antibacterial Dry Eye Compress (£9.99)

• Heat in the microwave and the sterile, bead-filled pad provides relief for dry, irritated and gritty eyes and symptoms of blepharitis.

Hardiman-McCartney also recommends making several other lifestyle switches including making sure eye makeup is completely removed every evening. “Eyeliner in particular, or not removing it entirely, can block tear ducts,” he says. “Under the microscope you can see bits of makeup floating in the tears and they can exacerbate dry eyes.”

Try: La Roche-Posay Respectissime Eye Make Up Remover for Sensitive Eyes (£8.25)

• Proven to effectively remove eye-makeup on sensitive, allergy-prone eyes without rubbing or irritation. 

Wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes in hot, smoky or dusty environments and drinking plenty of water can also help. “There is some anecdotal evidence that an omega-3 supplement can help to ease symptoms, but this is as-yet scientifically unproven,” says Hardiman-McCartney. Omega-3 can be found in oily fish and plant-based sources such as walnuts and rapeseed oil.

Try: Solgar Double Strength Omega-3 (£15.50)

• Highly concentrated essential fatty acids, which contribute to the maintenance of normal vision.

2. Certain medications, medical conditions or recent laser eye surgery

Categorised as full rather than marginal dry eye syndrome, these causes including those who suffer from Bell’s palsy, Sjögren's syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, may mean that over-the-counter remedies don’t help the symptoms of dry eyes. 

“Speak to your doctor or an optometrist about prescription medication. You need active drugs to increase, stimulate and improve the makeup of your tears,” advises Hardiman-McCartney. Symptoms include uncomfortable red eyes and can be disabling. 

“A good surface for the front of the eye is smooth but this condition makes it rough, which can lead to abrasions on the front of the eye and eventually problems with the cornea.”

3. Screen exposure

“If you have high exposure to screens, it usually leads to dry eyes and skin or eyelashes clogging the tear duct and trapping irritants and allergens, which can make the problem worse,” explains Hardiman-McCartney. 

“It’s most common in those with very dry or very oily skin and warm compresses or cleaning with sterile water, wipes or washes can help.” 

“If you discover you have dry eyes then don’t worry. There are very simple ways to help,” says Hardiman-McCartney. “There are dry eye clinic sessions to assess the front of the eye, tear quality and pH.” To discuss treatments and costs with your local Boots Opticians, find your nearest branch here.

All prices correct on date of publication
Photography: Stocksy