Early Signs of Dry Eye Syndrome (DES) You Need to Know

Do your eyes feel sandy? Can't blink away the stinging, burning sensation in them? You may experience the early signs of dry eyes. 

Dry eye syndrome (DES) or keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KS) is a common condition that occurs when there are not enough tears to lubricate the eye, or when tears don’t work properly. It often affects adults over the age of 50, but anyone may develop it.

Dry eye symptoms tend to be mild to moderate, but when the underlying causes are not addressed, they may become chronic and worsen in time. Untreated dry eye syndrome can damage the surface of your eyes and impair your vision.

Tears contain water, fatty acids, protein, electrolytes, and other compounds essential for eye health. These are arranged in three layers: an oily layer, a watery layer, and a mucin one. Each of these layers helps to nourish and protect the eye.

When your tear glands don’t work properly or there are imbalances in any of these layers, dry eye syndrome may develop. Knowing the early signs of dry eyes will help you treat the condition before symptoms worsen.

woman dressed in blackrubbing tired eyes

Signs of Dry Eye Syndrome

The early signs of dry eye syndrome are common and mild so that they are easy to ignore. After all, today, when screens are everywhere, feeling your eyes itchy and tired in the evening may seem normal, right?

However, these symptoms may be the result of an imbalance in your tear film or problems with your tear glands, and they may preclude chronic dry eyes.

The early signs of dry eyes are:

  • Gritty, scratchy, or stinging eyes
  • Burning sensation in the eyes
  • Feeling like you have specks of sand in your eye that you can’t blink away
  • Tearing or watery eyes
  • Redness
  • Blurry vision
  • Mucus in the corner of the eye or near the eye
  • Sensitivity to light, including high brightness settings on your computer, phone, or TV screen
  • Difficulty reading for longer periods
  • Heaviness in the eyes

These signs can be present in one or both eyes. You may experience only some of them or all of them. They may come and go or bother you every day.

man rubbing dry eyes when driving

Risk Factors

Some people are more at risk of developing dry eye syndrome. You may be one of them if you:

  • Are 50 years or older – Tear production tends to decrease in most people after the age of 40. According to the American Optometric Association, most people over 65 have some symptoms of dry eye syndrome.
  • You are a woman – Oral contraceptives, pregnancy-induced hormonal changes, and menopause increase the risk that you may suffer from this condition.
  • You have certain medical conditions – Diabetes, thyroid diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, blepharitis, rosacea, entropion, scleroderma, lupus, or other autoimmune disorders.
  • You have allergies – Allergies, as well as oral treatments for allergies, can also cause dry eyes or aggravate existing symptoms.
  • You take certain medications – Decongestants such as red-eye drops, birth control pills, isotretinoin acne drugs, antidepressants, sleeping pills, antihistamines, diuretics, or opiate painkillers may cause dry eyes.
  • You use screens for long periods – Staring at a screen reduces your natural blink rate and can contribute to the early signs of dry eyes.

man working on his computer at night

  • You smoke or live with someone who does – Exposure to smoke increases the evaporation of tears, which can lead to the condition.
  • You live in a dry or windy climate – These environments also increase tear evaporation.
  • You are constantly exposed to A/C – Air conditioning systems can contribute to the development of dry eye syndrome.
  • You work in an office – A study of European office workers found that about 1/3 of office workers reported dry eye symptoms. Factors include computer use, humidifiers, non-operable windows, and nearby air pollution sources.
  • You use contact lenses – A Japanese study found that contact lens wearers have a 2.38 times higher risk of having dry eyes.
  • You use eye drops with preservatives – These products can provide quick relief from burning or stinging eyes but tend to worsen dry eye symptoms over time.
  • You have undergone refractive eye surgery – LASIK and other similar procedures can increase the risk for dry eyes.
  • You do not get enough nutrients from your diet – The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and omega-3 fatty acids are essential for eye health. Deficiencies in these nutrients may contribute to the appearance of the early signs of dry eye syndrome.

Complications of Dry Eye Syndrome

Neglecting the early signs of dry eyes could lead to the condition becoming chronic. When that happens, it may affect your lifestyle, productivity, and overall quality of life. Severe dry eyes can also have more serious complications.

Watery Eyes

It may seem contradictory, but if you have dry eyes, your tear glands may produce too many tears. This happens as a result of irritation in the eyes caused by imbalances in the tear film. Watery eyes can affect your vision and are especially bothering when driving or if you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Conjunctivitis

Dry eyes may lead to the thin layer of tissue that covers the eye becoming inflamed. In most cases, conjunctivitis resolves on its own, but it can reoccur or be long-lasting, requiring medical treatment.

Eye Infection

More than lubricating the surface of the eye, tears play the important role of cleansing it from small particles of dust and protecting it from bacteria. If the tear film doesn’t work properly, the risk that the eye may become infected increases.

Further increasing this risk are nutritional deficiencies that may affect the immune system and the body’s ability to protect itself against bacteria, and which may contribute to dry eyes.

Damage to the Surface of the Cornea

A rarer, typically long-term development, corneal damage can cause ulceration and scarring. More than being painful, it can affect your vision and lead to vision impairment.

This is a serious complication and one that requires immediate medical attention. The damage may not always be reversible.

woman's eye behind eyeglass lens half face portrait

Treating the Early Signs of Dry Eyes

Addressing the first signs of dry eyes early will make it easier to prevent their worsening and avoid developing chronic dry eye syndrome.

For this, it’s important to identify and treat the underlying causes that may have triggered your dry eyes instead of focusing on the symptoms, which will provide only temporary relief.

Here are some early steps to consider.

  • Identify and reduce as much as possible environmental factors that may trigger dry eyes, such as overexposure to air conditioning.
  • Reduce your screen time and blink more often when looking at a screen for long periods.
  • Supplement your diet with an eye health supplement that includes the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.
  • Increase your intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins essential to eye health such as Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and B Vitamins.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking 8 to 10 glasses of water every day—remember that water is a key constituent of your tear film.
  • Avoid as much as possible dry, high-altitude environments. This includes airplanes.
  • Wear sunglasses outdoors.
  • Increase the humidity at home and at work if possible. For this, you can use a humidifier.
  • Discuss your symptoms with your doctor especially if you have a medical condition or take medication that could trigger dry eyes.

Take the Dry Eye Test

Do your eyes feel dry even as you read this? You may be suffering from the early signs of dry eye syndrome.

Addressing this condition early will make it easier for you to treat and manage it with simple lifestyle changes and better dietary choices.

We’ve put together a simple test for dry eyes you can take online. Take the Dry Eye Test now.