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How to relieve dry eyes fast
Eye drops can help relieve the burning, scratchy feeling of dry eyes. Learn how to pick ones that might work for you, plus other ways to find relief.
The tears may flow when you’re feeling big emotions. But tears aren’t just for moments of sadness or joy. Your eyes are constantly making tears, even when you’re not crying.
Tears are important for keeping your eyes moist and healthy at all times. When your eyes don’t make enough tears or your tears don’t work correctly, it can cause a condition called dry eye.
Dry eye is common. Nearly 16 million Americans have it.1 Even if you don’t have dry eye, you’ve probably felt that stinging, scratchy feeling in your eyes at some point.
When that feeling comes on, you want relief, and fast. Here’s what you can do to get relief and help keep your eyes healthy.
What is dry eye and what causes it?
When you don’t make enough tears to keep your eyes moist, you can end up with dry eyes, says Michelle Andreoli, MD. She’s a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Dry eye can also happen when the tears you do make aren’t able to keep your eyes moist, she adds.
Common symptoms of dry eye include:
- Blurry vision
- Red eyes
- Scratchy or gritty feeling in the eye
- Stinging or burning eyes
- Watery eyes
Watery eyes may seem like an odd symptom for something called dry eye. “But your eyes make more tears when they are irritated by dry eye,” says Dr. Andreoli.2 But those tears might not be moisturizing enough to ease your dry eye symptoms.
Age is also a factor. You’re more likely to get dry eye as you get older. Most people older than age of 65 have some symptoms of dry eyes. And women tend to be more likely to get dry eye, too. Hormonal changes during pregnancy or menopause can cause it. Other causes of dry eye include:3
- Medications. Some medicines for allergies, colds, depression and high blood pressure can cause your eyes to make less tears. Ask your doctor about potential side effects of your medications.
- Medical conditions. You’re more likely to have dry eye if you have rheumatoid arthritis, (an autoimmune disease that affects the joints), diabetes or thyroid problems. These conditions can affect your ability to make tears.
- Environment. Dry climates, smoke and wind can make your tears dry up faster, causing dry eye.
- Not blinking enough. Blinking helps keep your eyes moist. So, the opposite is also true. You might blink less while reading, watching TV or looking at a computer screen. That can lead to dry eye symptoms.
- Wearing contact lenses. Long-term contact use can lead to dry eye. Corrective eye surgery, like LASIK, can also cause it.
“If you begin to have any discomfort or changes in your eye, you should see an eye doctor,” says Dr. Andreoli. They can help figure out what’s causing the problem. They’ll also help come up with ways to treat it. Left untreated, dry eye can damage your eyes.1
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What are the best eye drops to use for dry eye?
The quickest way to soothe dry eyes is with eye drops. You’ll likely find quite a few options at the drugstore or online. Here are some common examples:
These are the most common eye drops for treating dry eye, says Dr. Andreoli. (They may be called “lubricant eye drops” on the package.) They mimic your natural tears. You can buy them without a prescription.
“There are many different brands,” says Dr. Andreoli. “Try a few until you find one that works best for you.”
Something to watch for: eye drops that treat red eyes. Your eyes may look red when the blood vessels are swollen or irritated. Eye drops to treat red eyes are made with a medicine that narrows your blood vessels. They can actually make your dry eye symptoms worse.4
Preservative-free eye drops
Artificial tears are often made with preservatives, or chemicals that can irritate your eyes. That can happen especially if you’re using the drops more than six times a day, says Dr. Andreoli.
Preservative-free drops are another option. They traditionally come in smaller single-use containers. “Preservative-free drops can be used as often as needed,” says Dr. Andreoli.
Gels and ointments
Dry eye remedies also come in a gel or ointment form. Since they are thicker, they can keep your eyes moist longer. But they can also cause blurry vision. You might prefer to use these at night before bed.
Rewetting drops for contacts
You can use artificial tears on contact lenses. There are also rewetting drops made specifically for contacts. Rewetting drops work by coating the inside of your contact lens and lubricating your eyes, so they don’t dry out.5
They’ll usually say “for contact lenses” on the package. You may need to try a few different products to find what works best with your contacts.
However, it’s not a good idea to use contact solution in your eyes. Contact solution is a liquid made for cleaning and storing your lenses. “Contact solution is not a safe replacement for eye drops. It should not go directly in the eye like an eye drop would,” says Dr. Andreoli.
Prescription eye drops
If over-the-counter (OTC) drops aren’t getting the job done, your eye doctor may recommend prescription drops.
“OTC eyedrops provide relief for dry eye due to temporary causes, like too much screen time,” says Dr. Andreoli. “If your dry eye is caused by a medical problem, your doctor can prescribe eye drops to treat the underlying issue.”
Two common prescription eye drops are cyclosporine (Restasis®) or lifitegrast (Xiidra®). These drops help your eyes make more tears.1 Your eye doctor can help you decide which type of eye drop is best for you.
You can shop for OTC and prescription eye drops online at the Optum Store. Even better? Most eye care products are covered by your medical expense account (HSA or FSA). Look for the HSA/FSA badge in the Optum Store.
What else can I do to relieve dry eye?
Eye drops aren’t the only way to treat dry eye. Some simple lifestyle changes can help too.
1. Keep your air clean. The air quality in your home can worsen dry eye symptoms. If you live somewhere with a lot of pollution, Dr. Andreoli recommends getting an air filter. A humidifier can also help add moisture to dry air.
Cigarette smoke can irritate your eyes too. If you happen to be around secondhand smoke a lot, do your best to stay away from it. And if you smoke, quitting can be a healthy way to avoid dry eye and many other conditions.
2. Don’t forget to blink. Staring at a computer screen all day can make your eyes dry. You may not blink as often when you’re staring at a screen or reading. Try to give your eyes a rest every 20 minutes or so.
“Set a reminder to take a break every 20 minutes. Look away from your screen or shut your eyes for 20 seconds,” says Dr. Andreoli. “It’s a good way to get in the habit of blinking and naturally lubricating your eyes.”
3. Drink plenty of water. A great way to keep your eyes moist is by staying well hydrated. Talk to your doctor about how much water you should drink every day.
4. Get enough sleep. A good night’s sleep gives your eyes a chance to rest and hydrate. Try to get seven to eight hours of shut-eye every night.
5. Use warm compresses. A simple alternative to eye drops? Cover your eyes with a warm, damp cloth for a few minutes. It helps your eyelid glands release oils, helping to improve the quality of your tears, says Dr. Andreoli.
If you’re not getting relief from eye drops and lifestyle changes, talk to your eye doctor. There are other options for more serious cases of dry eye.
You can buy eye drops and other eye care products at the Optum Store — all from the comfort of home. Start exploring.
- National Eye Institute. Dry eye. Last updated April 8, 2022. Accessed March 29, 2023.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is dry eye? Published July 25, 2022. Accessed May 3, 2023.
- American Optometric Association. Dry eye. Accessed March 29, 2023.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology. Lubricating eye drops for dry eyes. February 9, 2022.
- Contact Lens and Anterior Eye. A Review of the Compatibility of Topical Artificial Tears and Rewetting Drops with Contact Lenses. Published October 2020. Accessed May 3, 2023.
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