Dry Eye

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On this page… What is dry eye? | How is it diagnosed? | Medical Treatment | Surgical Treatment | FAQs and Links ↓

What is it?

“Dry eye” is an umbrella term for a range of conditions where the tear film fails to keep the front surface of the eye moist and nourished.

Today we break down Dry Eye into three separate categories. Each has a completely different underlying cause. Understanding this is the key to developing a treatment strategy.

Evaporative tear dysfunction (ETD)

This is by far the most common cause of dry eyes. It results from meibomian gland dysfunction, a type of blepharitis. There is adequate tear production but the tears evaporate quickly. Successful treatments target the oil glands in the eyelid. These include short courses of medium strength steroid eye drops and a three month course of Doxycycline tablets. Most patients also benefit from warm compresses and Omega-3 supplements. Meibomian Gland Expression can also be very helpful.

Secretive tear dysfunction (STD)

Some patients do not make enough of the watery component of the tears. This is much less common and is often associated with conditions that affect other parts of the body, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s Syndrome. Patients with STD are usually treated with tear supplements and low dose steroid eye drops. Some patients need to use serum eye drops, made from their own, or donated blood.

Distributive tear dysfunction (DTD)

This is the rarest type of “Dry Eye”. In these patients the eyelids fail to spread an adequate layer of tears evenly across the eye. Poor lid function after a stroke or Bell’s Palsy are two examples of DTS. Eyelid surgery is often required.

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How is it diagnosed?

Fluorescein staining of the tears and cornea showing oily layer thinning and punctate epithelial erosions

Fluorescein staining of the tears and cornea showing oily layer thinning and punctate epithelial erosions

The diagnosis of Dry Eye is made by assessing a patient’s symptoms, looking for characteristic changes on the surface of the eye and performing a few simple tests.


The symptoms of Dry Eye vary depending on the severity.

Mild Dry Eye symptoms include:

  • Grittiness
  • Dryness

Severe Dry Eye symptoms include:

  • Burning
  • Fluctuating vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Pain
  • Reduced vision


Patients with Dry Eye usually have obvious changes in the way they blink, the eyelids, the tears and on the surface of the eye. These are assessed with the slit lamp microscope. The examination is aided by adding a small amount of an orange dye called fluorescein to the tears and then viewing with a blue light.

Common changes in Dry Eye include:

  • A low volume tear “prism” along the lower eyelid margin.
  • Tiny “pot-holes” called punctate epithelial erosions on the surface of the cornea, seen as bright blue dots.
  • Thinning of the oily layer of the tear film which appears as expanding dark areas. The time these areas take to develop is known as the Tear Break Up Time. The break up time is reduced in patients with Dry Eye.

Schirmer’s tear test

Schirmer's test

Schirmer’s test

This is a simple test used to determine tear production. Small strips of a special paper are hooked over the lower eyelid. After 5 minutes the strips are examined. In very dry eyes the paper remains completely dry.

Blood tests

Some patients, particularly those with secretive dry eye or aqueous insufficiency, have inflammation in the lacrimal gland and elsewhere in the body. The most common example is patients who have rheumatoid arthritis. Blood tests can detect inflammation and the presence of such diseases. This helps both to confirm the diagnosis and plan treatment of the Dry Eye and other diseases.

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Medical Treatment

One of the many artificial tear preparations. Courtesy Alcon

One of the many artificial tear preparations. Courtesy Alcon

Most Dry Eye can be treated medically.

Simple strategies

There are some simple things you can do to help dry eyes.

  • Avoid conditions that encourage evaporation of the tears such as air conditioning and hot dry heat from heaters and hairdryers.
  • Wraparound sunglasses reduce wind movement across your eyes

Artificial tear supplements

Many people with dry eyes need to top up their natural tear production with artificial tears. You do not need a prescription to buy or use most artificial tears.

As you can see from the table below, there are many different types of artificial tears. Some artificial tears are very watery, others are very thick. Some drops have preservative, others do not. Some cannot be used by contact lens wearers. Everyone’s eyes are different and it may take a while to find the drop that is right for you.

Using artificial tear drops

The table below contains the name, lubricant and preservative of all the artificial tear drops currently available in New Zealand. The table is designed to help patients take control of their Dry Eye treatment by making therapy logical.

Start with a “thin” drop. If it doesn’t seem to work, try using it more frequently or try another thin drop with a different preservative. Use the drops regularly. Dry Eye treatment often fails because treatment is inadequate. If you don’t get relief, use a thicker drop.

If you develop an allergy (redness, itch etc) try a different preservative or a non-preserved drop. Use preservative-free drops if drops are required more than 6 times a day.

Ointments are usually too thick to use during the day. They are best used just before bed to give lasting relief overnight.

Thin drops with preservativeBlink TearsPolyethylene glycol / Hyaluronic acidOcupure
Blink ContactsSodium hyaluronateOcupure
GentealHydroxypropyl methylcelluloseSodium Perborate
Liquifilm TearsPolyvinyl alcoholBenzalkonium Chloride
Poly-TearsHypromellose / DextranPolyquad
Refresh OptiveCarboxy methylcellulose Sodium / Glycerin / Erythritol / LevocarnitinePurite
Refresh ContactsCarboxy methylcellulosePurite
Refresh TearsCarboxy methylcellulosePurite
Also Single Use
Polyethylene glycol / Propylene glycol / Hydroxypropyl GuarPolyquad
Systane Ultra
Also Single Use
Polyethylene glycol / Propylene glycol / Hydroxypropyl GuarPolyquad
Systane BalancePropylene glycol / Hydroxypropyl Guar / mineral oilPolyquad
Tears Naturale IIHydroxypropyl methylcellulose / Dextran / GlycerinPolyquad
VisineHydroxypropyl methylcelluloseBenzalkonium Chloride
VistilPolyvinyl alcoholOXYD
Thick dropsBlink GelTearsPolyethylene glycolOcupure
Refresh LiquigelCarboxy methylcellulosePurite
Liquifilm FortePolyvinyl alcoholBenzalkonium Chloride
Vistil FortePolyvinyl alcoholOXYD
Preservative free dropsBion TearsHydroxypropyl methylcelluloseNone
Blink Tears preservative freePolyethylene glycolNone
Genteal single useHydroxypropyl methylcelluloseNone
Hylo FreshSodium hyaluronate/sorbitolNone
Opti-melLeptosporum sp (Maunka) Honey / Sodium Chloride / Benzoic AcidNone
NovaTearsSodium hyaluronate/sorbitolNone
PolyGelCarboxy methylcelluloseNone
Poly-TearsHypromellose / DextranNone
RefreshPolyvinyl alcohol / povidoneNone
Refresh Celluvisc
Single use
Carboxy methylcelluloseNone
Refresh Plus TearsCarboxy methylcelluloseNone
Systane preservative freePolyethylene glycol / Propylene glycol / Hydroxypropyl GuarNone
Systane Ultra preservative free
(Currently unavailable in NZ)
Polyethylene glycol / Propylene glycol / Hydroxypropyl GuarNone
Genteal GelHydroxypropyl methylcellulose / CarbopolSodium Perborate
Lacrilube preservative-freeParaffinNone
PolyViscParaffin / Wool fatNone
Refresh LacrilubeWhite petrolatum / Mineral oilChlorobutanol
Refresh LiquigelCarboxy methylcellulosePurite
Refresh Night TimeParaffinNone
ViscotearsCarboxy methylcelluloseCetrimide
VitA-POSRetinol palmitate / lanolinNone
Viscotears Gel PFCarboxy methylcelluloseNone
Viscotears Gel PF - Single useCarboxy methylcelluloseNone
MistsClear Eyes Eye MistPolyvinyl alcoholNone
Optrex ActiMistSoy Lecithin / Sodium Chloride / Ethanol / PhenoxythanolNone


Many patients with reduced tear production have inflammation of the surface of their eyes. To test for this, and see if symptoms can be improved, Dr McKellar usually prescribes a short course of low potency topical steroid eyedrops. Patients who find their eyes are more comfortable can then use low dose steroids or other anti-inflammatories such as cyclosporine or diclofenac.

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Surgical Treatment

Oasis punctal plugs

Oasis punctal plugs

Artificial tears are very helpful in patients with mild and moderate Dry Eye but they are not the same as natural tears. Sometimes it is necessary to preserve what tears are being made.

Punctal occlusion

This is achieved by reducing or totally blocking the flow of tears from the eye. The easiest way is to occlude the puncta, the tiny openings that form the entrance into the tear drainage system.

There are two ways to reduce outflow:

  • Punctal plugs
  • Punctal cautery

Punctal plugs

Tiny cotton-reel shaped silicone plugs can be inserted into the puncta. Originally designed as a temporary solution, punctal plugs can be left in for long periods. The advantages of punctal plugs are:

  • They are simple to place
  • Occlusion is temporary
  • The plugs are easy to remove if the patient develops watery eyes

Punctal cautery

The puncta can be permanently occluded by the creation of scar tissue with heat.

The advantages of permanent occlusion are:

  • Occlusion is permanent
  • Scar tissue is more effective than plugs

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FAQs and Links

How can my eyes be dry if they still water sometimes and I can still cry?
Dry Eye occurs when the average amount of tears is low. Most patients can still produce a few tears when really necessary.

Recommended links

Dry eye

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