Q. My eyes get very dry, especially during the winter. How can I keep them moist?

A. Your discomfort may be occurring because your eyes may be unable to produce enough tears—or tears of the right consistency—for sufficient lubrication. This can cause a range of uncomfortable eye symptoms such as stinging, burning, gritty feeling, pain, light sensitivity, blurry vision, redness, eye fatigue, discharge, difficulty tolerating contact lenses, and even excess watering of the eyes, according to the National Eye Institute.

Dry winter air is one of the environmental conditions—along with smoke and wind—that can contribute, along with age (most sufferers are over the age of 65, says the American Optometric Association); deficiencies of nutrients such as vitamin A; medical conditions such as allergies, diabetes, eyelid inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis and some other autoimmune disorders, and thyroid issues; along with being female; and medications such as antidepressants, antihistamines, birth control pills, blood pressure drugs, decongestants, and hormone replacement therapy. People who’ve worn contact lenses for many years are also more likely to experience dry eye, and it can crop up temporarily after vision-correcting Lasik surgery. And a research review from the independent UpToDate suggests that eye medications, especially those containing preservatives, can also lead to dry eyes.  

Reduce Dry Eye Discomfort

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, you might want to start by setting up a humidifier in your home and office (be sure to clean it regularly as directed). Over-the-counter, preservative-free artificial tears may help reduce irritation within a few days but it can take longer—three to four weeks—before you see significant improvement.

In addition, ask your doctor about alternatives to any eye-drying medications you need to take regularly. Use a lubricating and rewetting drop through the day if you wear soft contact lenses. The AOA also recommends wearing sunglasses when outside—preferably with wraparound frames—to protect your eyes from sun and wind, and reminding yourself to blink often if you’re spending a lengthy time reading or looking at a computer screen.

If the dryness doesn’t respond to these strategies, have a conversation with your doctor about how to proceed. UpToDate recommends wearing swim goggles or goggle-like moisture chamber eyeglasses, which can help maintain a humid zone around your eyes. The prescription eyedrop cyclosporine (Restasis), which has been widely advertised in recent years, can reduce symptoms in some people (though it's not clear who will benefit and who won't), but can take several weeks to work. Some other therapies, such as plugging up the tear ducts to help keep tears in the eyes longer, are less commonly used and should be administered only by eye specialists.

Finally, in some studies, daily omega-3 fatty acids taken orally made the natural tears that lubricate eyes last longer. But experts say that more research is needed to determine just how much of the nutrient is useful for dry eyes.