Dry, itchy, or burning eyes are never fun, but for many of us, the solution could be as easy as replacing our contact lens. But if you get dry eyes on a regular basis, you might be left wondering what the problem is. There are some underlying health issues that can cause dry eyes, so if you’re experiencing problems with your eyes — especially if you have additional symptoms — it might be time to check in with your doctor.
"Fluctuating vision can be a sign of dry eye," Dr. Esen Akpek, MD, professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University Wilmer Eye Institute, tells Bustle via email. "If over-the-counter artificial tears, taken two to three times a day, are not helping or if the patient is experiencing additional symptoms," then seeing a doctor is probably your next step, Dr. Akpek says.
The National Eye Institute says that dry eyes, or dry eye, can cause a scratchy sensation or a feeling like something’s in your eye. You might also feel burning, stinging, pain, redness, or extreme tearing followed by dryness. Dry eye happens when your eyes aren’t producing enough tears to keep the surface of your eyes lubricated. In healthy eyes, your eyes make tears, called basal tears, that continuously moisten the surface of your eyes, or the cornea, the National Eye Institute says. Since a number of health issues can interfere with the functioning of your eyes, there are some potential causes of dry eye you should know about.
1. Rheumatoid Arthritis
The same antibodies that attack the joints in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can affect the eyes, the Arthritis Foundation says. People with autoimmune conditions like RA have chronic inflammation throughout the body, says the Arthritis foundation, and this can impact the eyes as well.
While treating the symptoms of dry eye with over-the-counter treatments like artificial tears can help, the best treatment is more comprehensive. The Arthritis Foundation recommends that dry eye in people with RA is best treated as part of your overarching treatment plan, and your doctor may prescribe lubricating eye inserts or anti-inflammatory eye drops.
The Lupus Foundation of America says that lupus can potentially affect the eyes in a number of ways. People living with lupus, a chronic autoimmune condition that affects the body's tissues, might experience eye inflammation and dryness. Damage to the nerves that control eye movement might also impact your vision.
Additionally, some medications used to treat lupus may also cause dry eye and other ocular side effects. Annual comprehensive eye exams are recommended for anyone with lupus, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.
3. Sjogren's Syndrome
John Hopkins Medicine says that the chronic inflammation present in Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune condition, typically affects the body's mucous membranes, and especially those in the mouth and eyes. As a result, people living with Sjogren's syndrome often experience extremely dry eyes. Various treatments, such as eye inserts, lubricating prescription drops, and hot compresses with eyelid massage might be prescribed for people with Sjogren's, says John Hopkins Medicine.
4. Thyroid Diseases
The Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan writes that autoimmune thyroid disorders like Grave's eye disease and thyroid eye disease, can affect the tissues around the eyes. With Grave's disease, eye symptoms are especially prevalent, and autoimmune attacks can target the eye muscles and connective tissues. Dry eye and irritation are typical symptoms of Grave's disease, John Hopkins Medicine says, and are usually accompanied by redness, pain, swelling, and puffiness around the eyes.
5. Vitamin A Deficiency
Vitamin A, found in leafy green veggies, orange fruits and vegetables, and eggs, is critical to healthy vision, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says. A vitamin A deficiency can halt the production of certain pigments in your eyes that are needed for your retina to work properly.
Getting enough vitamin A helps keep your corneas healthy, prevents night blindness and vision loss, and maintains healthy lubrication in your eyes, the AAO says. So, if you've got dry, scratchy eyes, boosting your vitamin A intake might help.
6. Side Effects From Medications
The University of Iowa writes that some medications can cause dry eye as a side effect. Medications for anxiety, high blood pressure, acne, depression, antihistamines, and birth control pills can dry your eyes out, the University of Iowa says. If your meds are giving you dry eye, your doctor might be able to prescribe an alternative.
While the causes of dry eye can vary, one common culprit is frequent exposure to tech screens, says Dr. Akpek. The Mayo Clinic suggests that, by keeping your computer screen positioned below eye level, taking breaks from long hours spent on the computer as much as you can, and using lubricating, over-the-counter eye drops, you can minimize eye dryness. Dr. Akpek also suggests "placing warm compresses over the eyes, and remembering to blink [frequently]," in order to help ease dry eye.
If you notice that your dry eye is happening along with other symptoms, or it's getting worse over time, check in with your doctor so that you can rule out any underlying health problems.