Dry Eye in the Winter: Q&A

What is dry eye?

Dry eye is a very common and chronic condition where either the eye doesn’t produce enough tears OR when the tears evaporate too quickly.  And we need tears to lubricate and nourish the surface of the eye – the cornea.  The cornea is the “windshield” of the eye and the tears are the “fluid” to help maintain a smooth and clear surface for optimal vision.


What does it feel like?

Patients with eyes experiencing dryness sometimes feel:

  • burning
  • redness
  • tearing
  • foreign body sensation
  • blurry vision
  • irritation/grittiness/scratchiness
  • intermittent sharp pain
  • headaches

Why do my eyes tear if they’re dry?

Humans produce THREE different kinds of tears.

  1. BASAL TEARS: These keep the cornea lubricated constantly throughout the day.
  2. REFLEX TEARS: These respond to something irritating the eye like onions or a speck of dust.
  3. EMOTIONAL TEARS: These are produced by sadness or sometimes extreme happiness.

Dry eye affects the production AND/OR evaporation of the basal tears.  For instance, on a windy day, the basal tears evaporate more quickly on the eye.  Because the cornea is no longer lubricated, rough patches and microscopic scratches form on the outermost layer – causing the eye to feel discomfort and irritation.  The lacrimal gland then produces excess reflex tears to try to “flush out” the irritation, but these tears unfortunately offer little lubrication.

What causes dry eye?

  • Age: Most people over the age of 65 experience some level of decreased tear production.
  • Gender: Women are affected by hormonal changes caused by pregnancy, birth control and menopause.
  • Drugs: This includes allergy medications and antidepressants.
  • Health conditions: Autoimmune diseases, diabetes and thyroid conditions can increase the chances of dryness.
  • Other eye conditions: Inflammation of the eyelids (blepharitis), incomplete lid closure, gland dysfunction and other eye diseases can cause dry eyes.
  • Environment: Cigarette smoke, wind and dry air can all cause tears to evaporate too quickly.
  • Computer use: When we are in front of a screen, we naturally blink significantly less.
  • Contact lenses: Long-term and/or improper use of contacts can cause dryness.
  • LASIK: This is a common post-operative complaint of patients.

Why do my eyes feel more dry in the winter?

Dryness symptoms are generally worse in the winter due to the air being dry both inside and outside our homes – think: chapped skin and lips.  Atmospheric humidity drops in the winter months here in the northeast and as the thermostat dips we turn on our indoor heating which dries the air at home even further.  Some patients also experience worse symptoms in the summer with air conditioning.

How is dry eye treated?

At Fanwood Eye Care, we like to take a hollistic and non-medicated approach as the first-line treatment for dry eye patients.  If these fail, prescription medications and/or punctal plugs may be discussed as the next step to finding relief.  The first step is identifying the cause(s) of the dryness and customizing treatment for the individual patient.

If you are experiencing dry eyes, schedule an exam with a local eye doctor and start feeling better & seeing clearer.


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