How to treat tired, dry or itchy eyes

Ophthalmologist Dr Mark Jacobs explains some of the most common causes of eye irritation – and what you can do to find relief.

Written by Dr Mark Jacobs
Young woman working late in front of a monitor.Businesswoman drinking coffee at his work place at night. Beautifil lady is surfing the internet late . Woman using tablet

If you’ve ever suffered from tired, dry or itchy eyes, you’ll know that these conditions can be uncomfortable, irritating and even painful. You may be surprised to learn that, in many cases, you can avoid or relieve these symptoms by making small changes to the spaces where you live, work and play.

Eye strain

These days, it’s all too easy to spend a big part of the day staring at screens – and our eyes are paying for it. Between using phones, tablets and computers at home and at work, many people spend hours at a time staring fixatedly at a close point. The end result? Eyes that are tired and strained, sometimes accompanied by blurred vision.

Within the eye are tiny muscles that contract and relax to change the shape of the eye’s lens. By doing so, you can shift your focus from something close to something far away. When you stare at a screen for a long period of time, some of these muscles remain contracted and eventually become fatigued – the same way your arms get sore if you hold them out in front of you for a long time.

To prevent tired, strained eyes, take these steps:

  • Minimise screen time. Take frequent breaks when you’re staring at screens. Follow the 20- 20-20 rule – every 20 minutes, stare 20 feet (around 6 metres) into the distance, for 20 seconds. Shifting your focus gives the muscles in your eyes a break. Set a timer to remind yourself to do this.
  • Dim the room lights and screen brightness. Your eyes have to work harder when the screen is very bright or has glare, which can be made worse by an overly lit room.
  • Consider getting a blue light filter for electronic devices. Too much blue light reduces screen contrast and makes digital eye strain worse.

Dry eyes

When our eyes are fixed on a screen, we tend to blink less. This can lead to the layer of tears on the front surface of the eye (the cornea) evaporating too quickly, causing dryness and irritation. Other culprits that can cause dry eyes include air-conditioning and heating. So, if you spend your day in an office building or other temperature-controlled space, you may be particularly prone to suffering from dry eye.

Dry eye is a common, chronic condition. The condition is generally mild and only causes minor discomfort for most people, but for some it can be severe and debilitating. Unfortunately, there is no cure for dry eye, but there are certain changes that you can make to help relieve symptoms.

To prevent or reduce the symptoms of dry eye:

  • Remember to blink.
  • Limit the use of air-conditioning and heating units if possible.
  • Use preservative-free artificial tears throughout the day.
  • Use a humidifier at home.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and dusty environments.

Itchy eyes

If you suffer from itchy eyes, time spent in the garden or with your pets might be the cause of your symptoms. Pollen, animal fur and dust mites can cause allergic conjunctivitis in susceptible people.

One of the most common symptoms of this condition is itchy, inflamed eyes. Other symptoms that may occur include teary and swollen eyes. This allergic response is due to the release of histamines when the offending allergen comes into contact with the surface of your eye.

To avoid the symptoms associated with eye allergies:

  • Avoid known sources of allergens.
  • Wash your face, hands and eyes to remove any allergens.
  • Regularly vacuum and dust the house and change bedding.
  • Avoid carpeted areas where possible, as carpet traps and accumulates allergens. Floorboards are a better flooring choice.
  • Buy an air purifier.
  • Keep windows closed if the pollen count is high.
  • Consider taking an antihistamine if exposure can’t be avoided.
  • Only use allergy or red eye drops as advised by an eye care professional. Many over-the-counter eye drops can make your eyes worse over time.

Persistently strained, dry and/or itchy eyes should be checked by an eye care professional. These symptoms can be a sign of a refractive error (e.g. short-sightedness, long-sightedness or astigmatism) or a chronic eye condition, and treatments may be available.

Make an appointment to see an optometrist or GP, who will refer you to an ophthalmologist if necessary.

Written by Dr Mark Jacobs

Dr Mark Jacobs is a highly experienced general ophthalmologist who specialises in glaucoma, laser cataract surgery and pterygium surgery. He practices at Vision Eye Institute Drummoyne.

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