Dry Eye Syndrome – Is It pollution, Age, or Something Else?

March 15, 2016
Symptoms of dry eye syndrome are generally straightforward and include dry, red, and itchy eyes. Unfortunately, the cause of this condition can be more complex due to a variety of factors that can either reduce your eyes’ tear production or prevent your eyes from remaining adequately hydrated throughout the day.

Dry eye syndrome has much to do with tears. Tears are made up of a combination of water, salts, mucus, oils, and proteins, and they lubricate and protect the eyes against dryness and keep them free of dust and dirt. Dry eye syndrome can happen when a part of the tear production process stops functioning correctly, therefore reducing tear production. Dry eyes can also occur if tears are drying too quickly, and therefore, are unable to offer the proper lubrication and protection needed for the eyes to remain comfortable.

Environmental factors

Exposure to air pollution, which is made up of microscopic airborne particles such as soot, dust, nitrates, and smoke, can cause dry eye syndrome. When these particles come in contact with your eyes, they can cause small scratches and other irritations to the surface of the eye. Without adequate tear production, your eyes cannot naturally flush away these tiny particles, which lead to inflammation and itchiness.

The weather can play a role in drying out your eyes too. Excessive exposure to wind, bright sunshine, or dry climates can cause your tears to evaporate more quickly than usual. Without the protective film of tears on your eyes, they can quickly become irritated.


As you age, your body’s abilities in performing everyday functions begin to slowly deteriorate. This includes a decreased secretion of tears compared to the production during your younger years, as well as lower quality tears that don’t contain the proper balance of water, oil, salt, protein, and mucus levels. Both situations can cause dry eye syndrome.

Medical conditions

Allergies, such as those caused by pollen and pet dander, can cause inflammation of the white exterior portion of the eye (conjunctiva) and lead to dry, red, itchy eyes.

There are also skin conditions such as scleroderma and contact dermatitis, and immune disorders such as lupus, HIV, and rheumatoid arthritis that have a tendency to increase your chances of contracting dry eye syndrome.

Vision correction, whether through the temporary use of contact lenses or the permanent fix from corrective laser eye surgery, can lead to dry eyes. These symptoms often last for short periods of time and either clear up several weeks to several months after eye surgery or can be prevented by reducing the number of hours per day contact lenses are worn.

High concentration activities

Activities that require lengthy concentration often means you aren’t blinking often enough – which may lead to dry eyes. This is a common occurrence if you spend a lot of time on the computer, read a lot, watch TV for lengthy periods of time, or engage in hobbies or tasks that require a great deal of focus.

Eyelash mites

There may be another cause of dry eye syndrome: eyelash mites. These microscopic parasites live on nearly everyone’s eyelashes and in most cases do no harm. However, if too many of them are living on your eyelashes they can cause inflammation of the eyelids and symptoms of dry eyes. Eyelash mites are most prevalent in elderly patients and women who wear a lot of eye makeup.

If you are experiencing dry, red, and itchy eyes, speak to your doctor about treatment. If left untreated, severe dry eyes may lead to abrasion of the corneal surface, corneal ulcers, eye inflammation, and vision problems.

By Dr. Nattawut Wanumkarng, Ophthalmologist, Eye Center, Bumrungrad Hospital
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