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Relieving Chronic Dry Eye

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Why It's Important to Treat Dry Eyes

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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close up of woman putting eye drops into eye

If you’re like many people, you may not take dry eyes seriously—but that could be a big mistake. Left untreated, dry eye syndrome can cause discomfort and bouts of blurry vision. It can interfere with your activities—for example, making it hard to use a computer for long periods or travel comfortably in the dry cabin of a plane.

What you might not know is that untreated dry eyes can also damage your cornea, the clear, dome-shaped outer layer covering the front of the eye. In severe cases, this damage can lead to permanent vision loss and even blindness. Fortunately, such problems usually can be averted by getting treatment for dry eyes.

The Importance of Tears

Unlike other parts of your body, the cornea doesn’t contain any blood vessels. Rather than getting oxygen and nutrients from blood, it receives them from tears. These tears also cleanse your eyes and wash away dust and germs. The healthy tear film is essential to the optics of crisp vision. Dry eyes are blurry eyes.

When you have dry eye syndrome, the quantity or quality of tears is insufficient, so the health of your cornea may suffer. In some cases, the cornea also becomes inflamed. If left untreated, this inflammation may lead to painful open sores and scarring of the cornea. If corneal sores (ulcers) aren’t treated, vision loss can be permanent.

A film of tears over the cornea also helps keep it clear and smooth. This is crucial for good vision, because it’s the point where light is first focused as it enters the eye. When the tear film is inadequate, vision isn’t as sharp as it otherwise would be.

Two Important Cornea Conditions

These two cornea conditions may result (or worsen) due to ignoring eye dryness:

Corneal ulcer

This is an open sore on the cornea. It can result from eye inflammation or an eye infection—and the risk of infection is increased in people with insufficient tear production. Possible symptoms include:

  • Eye redness

  • Severe eye pain or soreness

  • Gritty feeling in the eye

  • Excessive watering

  • Pus or other discharge

  • Blurry vision

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Swollen eyelids

  • White spot on the cornea

If you develop such symptoms, call your ophthalmologist right away. Without prompt treatment, a corneal ulcer may lead to scarring and severe vision loss that can be chronic. Antibiotic, antifungal, or antiviral eye drops may be prescribed for an infection depending on the causative organism. Steroid or anti-inflammatory eye drops help prevent scarring, and oral pain medicine helps relieve pain.

Corneal abrasion

This is an injury to the outermost layer of cells on the corneal surface. Dry eyes make these exposed cells highly vulnerable to trauma (epithelial defects). Among other things, it can result from vigorous rubbing of your eyes. It can also be caused by a foreign object in the eye, and a lack of tears means you’re missing the eye’s natural defense for washing away dust and debris. Possible symptoms include:

  • Eye pain, which may worsen when you open or close your eye

  • Gritty feeling in the eye

  • Excessive watering

  • Eye redness

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Blurry vision

  • Headache

Contact your eye doctor if you think you may have a corneal abrasion. Depending on the situation, steroid eye drops, antibiotic eye drops or ointment, or a pain reliever may be prescribed. Your eye might also be patched to make you more comfortable while the abrasion heals.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 22
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Etiology, Prevalence, and Treatment of Dry Eye Disease. J.L. Gayton. Clinical Ophthalmology, 2009, vol. 3, pp. 405-412.
  2. What Is Corneal Abrasion? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  3. What Causes Corneal Abrasion? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  4. Corneal Abrasion Symptoms. American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  5. Corneal Abrasion Treatment. American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  6. What Is a Corneal Ulcer? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  7. What Causes Corneal Ulcers? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  8. Corneal Ulcer Symptoms. American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  9. Corneal Ulcer Treatment. American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  10. What Is Dry Eye? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  11. Proper Care of Contact Lenses. American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  12. Facts About the Cornea and Corneal Disease. National Eye Institute.
  13. Facts About Dry Eye. National Eye Institute.