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Symptoms and causes of dry eyes

Your tears, which keep your eyes moist, are a mixture of three layers – oils (lipid layer), water (aqueous layer) and mucus.

The oils are on the outside and are made by the meibomian glands in your eyelid. These oils help to stop the watery layer underneath from evaporating too quickly.

The tear ducts (lacrimal gland) in your upper eyelids make the middle water layer. This keeps your eyes moist and washes out dust or anything else that gets in your eyes.

The cells on the surface of your eyes (conjunctiva) make a mucus, which helps the watery layer to stick and spread over your eyes.

Symptoms of dry eyes

Common symptoms include:

Causes of dry eyes

Many different things can contribute to having dry eyes.

Age and gender

As we get older we make fewer tears. Women are also more likely to get dry eyes because of the hormonal changes that happen with their periods, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.


Using your eyes for fine tasks such as reading for a long time can contribute. We blink less when we're reading a computer screen, when reading print, or when we're watching TV.


Dry or windy climates, higher temperatures, pollution, and smoking can all make your eyes dry.

Other eye conditions

These include blepharitis, ectropion (when your eyelid turns out, which can happen as you get older), a problem with your meibomian glands, refractive surgery (especially LASIK), pterygium or pinguecula, an eye injury, or abnormal blinking. As well, wearing contact lenses increases your risk of getting dry eyes.

Other diseases

These include autoimmune and connective tissue diseases such as Stevens-Johnson and Sjögren's syndrome, hepatitis C, HIV and Aids, sarcoidosis, diabetes, hormone deficiency and rosacea.

What you eat

If you don't eat enough omega-3 fatty acids and too many omega-6 fatty acids you can get dry eyes.


Certain medications such as chemotherapy, diuretics, antidepressants, antihistamines, hormone replacement therapy, beta blockers, and oral isotretinoin for acne can cause dry eyes.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Diagnosing dry eyes

Written by Canterbury optometrists. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by clinical director, Ophthalmology, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed November 2019.


Page reference: 206318

Review key: HIDRE-206293