For many years, “dry eyes” referred exclusively to dryness of the eyes in a purely physical sense. In more recent times, it has come to refer to a condition with a greater spectrum of symptoms.

This is in part due to a far greater understanding of the causes of dry eyes, as well as researchers having more data on dry eye signs.

So, what do dry eyes feel like? That might depend on what is causing them. Read on to find out how dry eyes feel and discover a quick dry eye test you can take.

What Does Dry Eye Syndrome Feel Like?

People with dry eye syndrome commonly experience a dry feeling in and around the eyes. But this usually comes alongside other unpleasant feelings and sensations, including:

  • Stinging and burning in the eyes – Some report it as being a similar type of stinging as when you accidentally get shampoo or soap in your eyes.
  • Watery or teary eyes – Quite contradictory to the name “dry eyes,” you might find your eyes and face to be overly wet. A similar feeling might be when you cut onions and they cause you to “cry.”
  • Gritty feeling in your eyes – If you’ve ever spent a day at the beach or walked along a dusty path on a windy day, you’ve probably ended up with the uncomfortable feeling of having sand or grit lodged in your eye. For somebody with dry eyes, this is a common feeling. Unfortunately, it cannot be resolved as easily because with dry eyes there is no grit or dirt to remove.
  • Blurred vision – This blurriness can feel like water in your eyes. Your vision can also appear similar to when you first wake up in the morning. Normally, the blurriness disappears after blinking a few times. With dry eyes, the blurriness lasts longer.
  • Heavy eyelids – That feeling of having heavy, tired eyes you struggle to keep open is familiar to most people. Normally, it’s experienced by somebody tired, fatigued, or who has spent too much time in front of a screen. Tired-feeling eyes and heavy eyelids can occur in people with dry eyes syndrome. This is often regardless of screen time or a good night’s rest.
  • Mucus-filled eyes – This unpleasant symptom involves a small build-up of mucus in the corners of the eyes. This mucus can be unsightly and sometimes stringy.

What Are Early Dry Eyes Symptoms?

Alongside stinging and burning in the eyes, teary eyes, a gritty feeling in the eyes, blurred vision, heavy eyelids, and mucus, other early dry eyes symptoms can include:

  • Redness in and around the eye
  • Difficulty with low-light or night-time driving
  • Discomfort or trouble wearing or applying contacts
blurry street lights at night seen from the dark inside of a car with the wheel on the left

Tip: We dedicated an entire post to the early signs of dry eye syndrome. You may want to check it out.

What Causes Your Eyes to Feel Gritty?

You might be wondering: if there’s no grit or dirt in your eye, why does it feel like there is?

The answer lies in your tears. A tear film coats the surface of the eye, keeping it hydrated and smooth while protecting the eye from irritants. The tear film consists of three parts:

  • Inner mucus layer – Allows the tear to stick to the eyes.
  • Aqueous layer – Keeps the eyes wet and nourished.
  • Oily layer – Prevents the tears from evaporating too rapidly.

When either of these parts fails to function correctly, it affects the eye’s ability to stay smooth and lubricated. This leads to the irritated, dry, and sandy feeling of having something in your eye. In other words, dry eyes.

What Does Chronic Dry Eye Feel Like?

People suffering from dry eyes usually find that their symptoms clear soon after treatment, or improve with a better eye care routine and a more humid environment. Some people suffer from chronic dry eye, where the symptoms continue for months or longer.

If you suffer from chronic dry eye, you will find that the symptoms persist even after you apply environmental and habitual remedies. In this instance, it may feel as though nothing is working.

The cause may be an underlying condition. This is what separates chronic dry eyes symptoms from regular dry eye symptoms.

If your dry eyes symptoms continue after remedies and lifestyle changes, it’s important to see a medical expert to get to the root cause of the dry eyes.

Good to know: We wrote a post about chronic dry eyes vs temporary dry eyes. You may want to check it.

What Does Severe Dry Eye Feel Like?

Those suffering from chronic dry eye might also experience more severe eye dryness symptoms caused by an underlying health condition.

Autoimmune conditions like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjogren’s syndrome can affect the nerves and glands in and around the eyes.

Those suffering from severe dry eye will have perpetually itchy, dry, and gritty eyes alongside blurred, cloudy vision, mucus build-up around the eyes, and sensitivity to light.

man lying on the bed rubbing his dry eyes with glasses, phone, and notebook to one side seen from above

If you have severe dry eye with an underlying condition, you will likely feel the symptoms of the underlying conditions alongside chronic dry eyes symptoms.

Owing to the regularity and severity of the symptoms of severe dry eye alone, it can have a great impact on a person’s well-being and significantly affect their everyday life.

A study by Eyesight Associates in the US found that severe dry eye symptoms had a “considerable impact” on quality of life. They found that some of those suffering severe dry eye reported worse quality of life than people suffering symptoms of moderate angina or disabling hip fracture.

Because the symptoms are so persistent and strong, people suffering from severe dry eyes might feel as though there is no remedy.

For this reason, it’s important to find the cause; although some cases of severe dry eye cannot be cured, there are effective treatments available.

What Do Dry Eyes Feel Like with Contacts?

If you need to wear contact lenses, suffering from dry eyes can be challenging, especially if you already struggle with wearing contacts. Make sure to choose contact lenses for dry eyes.

It’s also possible that contacts can induce dry eyes. This happens because the lens limits the amount of vital oxygen required for tear production into the eye. The lens can also interfere with tear film layers.

If you already suffer from dry eyes, it’s best to resolve this before wearing contacts as they will compound the itchy, irritated feeling you already experience. You may also unintentionally remove them when rubbing your eyes.

If lenses are causing dry eyes, speak to your optometrist as they may be able to provide you with a more breathable lens and liquid combination.

Tip: Find out more about managing dry eye while wearing contact lenses.

What Does Dry Eye Feel Like After Cataract Surgery or LASIK?

Cataract surgery can bring on mild dry eye. According to a study in India, 42% of patients had dry eyes a week after surgery.

Cataract surgery affects the tear film which is why you may feel a general dryness in your eyes along with itchiness and irritation.

Dry eye following cataract surgery isn’t usually severe and clears up in a month or two with mild symptoms possibly persisting longer.

Laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) can affect the eye in similar ways to cataract surgery. A study at the University of Michigan found 95% of patients reported dry eye symptoms immediately after LASIK, with as many as 60% reporting symptoms a month after LASIK.

LASIK surgery usually causes a drop in tear production, bringing about itchy, irritated, and dry-feeling eyes. You might also have difficulty crying.

The symptoms peak in the first few months following LASIK surgery. They usually improve around 6-12 months post-surgery.

Important: As with cataract surgery, the symptoms should remain mild and clear up on their own. Some people might report more severe feelings of dry eye. If your symptoms are persistent and severe, check with a medical expert.

What Does Sjogren’s Dry Eye Feel Like

Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack glands involved in fluid secretion. This can cause: 

  • Lack of tear fluid production
  • Lack of saliva production in the mouth
  • Skin dryness
  • Swollen glands
  • Vaginal dryness

The two main symptoms are dry eyes and mouth, so Sjogren’s dry eye comes with its own unpleasant feelings. Your eyes might feel very dry, stingy, itchy, or hot, causing excessive blinking.

This occurs because of the lack of tear fluids being produced. Looking at lights might also become uncomfortable.

woman in a beanie reclining with eyes closed against white surface with bright light on her face

Along with this, a lack of saliva will cause the mouth to feel dry, sometimes making it difficult to swallow food. This lack of saliva may also cause hoarseness, dry cracked lips, and even alter the taste of food.

Although dry eye symptoms can be severe and chronic, they can vary across different people suffering from Sjogren’s syndrome.

For some people, the symptoms have a huge effect on their daily life. Other people only find the symptoms a nuisance.

Another important thing to remember is that dry eyes in Sjogren’s syndrome cannot be cured, only treated. It’s important to practice good eye hygiene to prevent more serious complications.

Take the Dry Eye Test

The earlier you can identify dry eyes, the quicker you can find the cause and appropriate remedy.

Your eyes might feel itchy or dry. You may wake up in the morning feeling like your eyes are glued closed or find yourself suddenly becoming sensitive to light.

Maybe your eyes are watery and runny, or you feel like you have something stuck in your eye for hours or even days on end.

If you’ve felt any of these, it might be worth getting checked for dry eyes.

How dry eyes feel can vary depending on both the severity and the cause of the condition. If you get dry eyes often and it’s impacting your everyday life, see a medical professional.

Meanwhile, a quick online test can be the first step to finding out whether you have dry eyes. It takes only a few minutes.

Take the Dry Eye Test now.

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