The Reason Your Eyes Are Dry and Itchy (It's Not Allergies)

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Woman covering her itchy eyes
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Nothing throws off your day quite like a bout with dry and itchy eyes. After all, how are you supposed to concentrate on anything when your eyes feel like they’re coated in sandpaper?

Luckily, we’ve got some information and helpful tips for dealing with ocular itch (yes, that sounds weird) that isn’t related to allergies.

When the answer isn’t allergies

If you are dealing with dry and itchy eyes that aren’t caused by allergies, you’re in good company. It’s a common issue for many people, particularly as they grow older. (Though it is interesting to note that it’s becoming more common in younger people since their eyeballs are glued to computer screens all day long).

Most often the main reason for your dry and itchy eyes? You’re simply not producing enough tears or enough oil in your tears.

"You're constantly producing tears to moisten and lubricate your eyes. And if — for whatever reason — you're not making enough to keep up, your eyes get really dried out, and that can cause that sensation of dryness and itchiness. It can also cause redness, blurring of the vision and overall discomfort,” says Dr. Jennifer Yu, ophthalmologist at the Eye Institutes at Harborview and a UW clinical associate professor of Ophthalmology.

When this happens, it’s considered to be, very generally, dry eye syndrome.

And sometimes, it’s not just the lack of tears that’s the issue, it’s the lack of oil in our tears that can cause problems as well. Everyone produces a little bit of oil in their tears to help lubricate the eyes, and when those oil glands get blocked, the tears we make don’t have the right mixture of oil, evaporate too quickly and don’t get the job done (lubrication being the job).

Something else known to cause dry and itchy eyes? Using contact lenses. Now, wearing contacts doesn’t automatically doom you to a life of crispy-feeling eyeballs, but they can make your eyes a bit drier, especially if you’re wearing them for long periods of time.

As does staring at a computer or phone screen — especially since we tend not to blink when we’re really focused on looking at something, which only dries the eyes out more.

In addition, there are some medications, like birth control pills, decongestants and antihistamines, that can dry your eyes out. Which is something to be aware of, but not a reason to completely stop taking the medication.

A couple of other contenders? Environmental factors like your heating system kicking on in the winter, a new extra-fluffy pair of fake eyelashes, not getting enough sleep or even specific diseases like Sjogren’s syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.

But for most people, it’s not just one of the above reasons that ends up making their eyes feel dry and scratchy — it’s a combination of a few.

“If you're taking one of these medicines and you're wearing contact lenses and you're staring at screens and you’re not getting enough sleep — that can kind of push you over the dry eye edge,” comments Yu.

Treatments to get you feeling better

When it comes to making your eyes feel better, it’s all about moisture.

Yu recommends using lubricating or moisturizing eye drops, also called artificial tears, which are available over the counter and come in many different formulations.

“I always like to compare it to something like toothpaste,” says Yu. “They all work fine, but the manufacturers make like 10 different kinds, so it's very confusing. It's really more of a personal preference.”

There are two general categories of artificial tears: The first are preservative-free drops that come in little vials and are designed to be single-use (these are Yu’s favorite). They are very gentle, and because they lack preservatives, can be used frequently throughout the day and are great for people with an allergy to preservatives.

Then there are artificial tears that have preservatives. These drops should only be used at most 4 times a day since overloading on preservatives can further irritate your eye. But they do have their benefits — mostly that they come in larger bottles and are easy to keep on hand for when dry eyes strike.

Cool and warm compresses are also an option for treating uncomfortable eye symptoms. Yu recommends a cool compress for really itchy eyes but says that a hot compress is actually better for dry eyes (just don’t make it so hot that you scald your eyeball). Also, moist heat is best, so running the compress under hot water and squeezing out the excess water before you apply will work wonders. Yu says that a microwavable gel pack or even an electric heated eye mask is also fine to use.

To really be effective, make sure to keep the compress on your face for several minutes.

More harm than good

In trying to relieve the symptoms of your dry and itchy eyes, you might actually be making things worse:

  • Using drops that are formulated to take the red out of your eyes: the medication that is used to remove the red is actually drying to your eye. Plus, they can be deadly if ingested orally, so keep them away from children.
  • Rubbing your eyes: a gentle rub here and there is fine, but if you really go at it, you’re risking more eye discomfort.
  • Trying to get mucus out of your eye: sometimes to protect itself from being too dry, the eye creates a kind of sticky mucus. People then want to stick their finger in their eye to clean it out, but that actually causes your eye to react and produce more mucus. Thus, creating a weird mucus cycle that is good for no one.

Time to see the doc? 

When it comes to visiting the doctor for your eye problems, Yu takes a very clear stance. 

“You should go to the doctor anytime that you have any pain,” says Yu. “Dry and itchy eyes might be very uncomfortable, but they should not be causing you pain — and certainly any decreased vision or extremely blurry vision is concerning enough that you should go see your doctor.” 

She explains that your doctor will be able to see if any other diagnoses might help explain your eye issues.

You also may need some prescription eye drops or pills — which is where visiting the doc can come in handy. 

Top tips for keeping your eyes healthy 

Yu likes to keep it simple when it comes to maintaining eye health: 

  • Always have artificial tears on hand just in case you have a dry and itchy eye flare-up. 
  • NEVER sleep in your contact lenses and make sure you’re not wearing them for really long periods of time. When it comes to timing, different kinds of contacts have different recommendations  — so follow your eye doctor's advice about wearing and replacing them.
  • If you’re glued to a computer screen throughout the day, close your eyes for five minutes every hour to give your eyeballs a break.
  • Incorporate a warm compress for your eyes into your daily routine — this is a great way to pamper your eyes and keep them happy long-term.