Plagued by a dry, scratchy, gritty, or burning sensation in your eyes? You may have wondered whether you have “dry eyes” and whether the widely prescribed drug you’ve seen advertised for the condition is right for you.

But as an editorial published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine notes, it’s unclear whether the drug, cyclosporine eye drops (sold under the brand name Restasis), will actually make your eyes feel better.

The popular drug—pharmacies dispensed more than 3 million prescriptions for it in 2016—was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002 to increase tear production. (In dry eyes, discomfort, along with redness, excess watering, and even blurred vision, is caused by insufficient tear production, tears that evaporate too quickly from the eyes, or a combination of both.)

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Tears lubricate the surface of the eye, protect it from irritants and germs, and have a number of other important functions. But increasing tear production doesn’t necessarily ease the discomfort associated with dry eyes, says Steven Woloshin, M.D., a co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and co-author of the editorial.

He notes that the Restasis clinical trial data, which the FDA reviewed before approval, did indeed show that the drug increased tear production. But it failed to show that Restasis improved the symptoms of dry eyes more than a placebo did.

In addition, says Lisa Schwartz, M.D., also a co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and co-author along with Woloshin, the marketing of Restasis may lead consumers to think that any symptoms of dry eyes are a problem that should be treated pharmacologically. But occasional eye discomfort is normal. “Just having dry eyes every now and then doesn't mean you have a disease,” she says.

Consumer Reports reached out to representatives of Allergan for comment on the JAMA Internal Medicine report. “Since the FDA approval and launch of Restasis in 2003, doctors have prescribed it more than 6.4 million times to patients,” says Mark Marmur, Allergan’s director of corporate affairs, in a statement emailed to Consumer Reports. “Based on feedback from the community of prescribers and patients, both in clinical and academic practice, we know that Restasis has made a significant difference for patients.”

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology's dry eye treatment guidelines, insufficient tear production is actually the least common cause of dry eyes. It’s more typical for people to produce normal amounts of tears, but to have them disperse before they can properly coat and protect the eyes.  

What should you do if you’re experiencing symptoms of dry eyes? Here, what might be causing them, when to seek a doctor's advice—and what can really help. 

Opt for Simple Measures First

Try using a humidifier, especially during cold weather, when dry air can speed tear evaporation, suggests Leela Raju, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at NYU Langone Health in New York City. During the warm months, if you run a portable fan, make sure it’s pointed away from your face, even while you sleep, since some people sleep with their eyes slightly open. Check our buying guide and ratings for humidifiers.

Quit smoking or limit your exposure to secondhand smoke, if you can. Cigarette smoking has been linked to dry eyes.

Adjust your screen habits. Long hours on a computer can cause symptoms of dry eyes. When you’re reading and working on computers, tablets, and smartphones, says Richard Davis, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, you’re blinking less than normal, and blinking helps keep eyes lubricated.

Raju recommends employing the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, focus on an object that’s 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds. And adjust your computer monitor so you're looking straight ahead or slightly downward at the screen. Looking up leaves more of your eye exposed to the air, Raju says, contributing further to dryness.

Try a warm compress. Sometimes, inflammation around the eyes—from issues like infection, contact allergies to cosmetics, rosacea, or psoriasis—can block oil-producing glands in the eyes. (The oil, a component of tears, keeps them from evaporating too quickly)

Often, holding a warm compress against your eyes for a few minutes every day, gently massaging the eyelids, and ensuring that you keep your eyelids clean (gently rubbing them with a warm, damp washcloth), can help.

Try artificial tears. Over-the-counter eye drops known as artificial tears can help ease discomfort. If you find yourself using these more than four times per day, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends opting for preservative-free versions. That’s because the preservatives themselves can be irritating to the eyes, Davis says.

You may need to be patient when using artificial tears, Raju notes—it can take up to three or four weeks for dry eye symptoms to improve significantly.

If You Need More Help

For some people, the above measures are enough to ease discomfort and irritation. “In general, if you don’t feel like the dry eye symptoms are affecting your daily life, then just continue with the artificial tears,” Davis says. “But if you feel like your dry eye symptoms are affecting your quality of life, that’s when you need to see an eye care provider.”

An eye doctor can perform tests to help figure out the root cause of your dry eyes—the best treatment will depend on what he or she finds.

Several diseases, including hyperthyroidism and autoimmune disorders such as Sjögren’s syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause dry eyes, too.

Many medications, including antidepressants, antihistamines, birth control, hormone replacement, and diuretics, are linked with dry eyes, too. In this case, your doctor may be able to help you adjust your medication regimen to lessen symptoms.

For those with severe symptoms, a surgical procedure to block the tear drainage ducts may help conserve tears, by keeping them in the eyes longer.

What about prescription drugs for dry eyes? Davis says that the two prescription drugs currently available, Restasis and lifitegrast (Xiidra) may help some people in some cases. (Xiidra, which was approved in 2016, is thought to reduce the inflammation that can cause dry eyes.)

However, both drugs are expensive and can cause side effects that can worsen eye irritation and discomfort—Restasis in up to 17 percent of people and Xiidra in up to 25 percent of people.

"Judging from the clinical trials data, the benefits of those two drugs are not that much more than the risk of adverse effects,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. “Their use should be relegated to a last-ditch measure, when all else has failed.”