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How to Treat (and Prevent) Dry Eyes, According to Eye Experts

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If your eyes are feeling drier than normal this year, you’re not alone. “More people are spending more time in front of various screens: computers, televisions, phones, tablets,” says Dr. Monica Dweck, an ophthalmologist at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai. “Because of that, we’ve seen a tremendous uptick in symptoms” of dry eye, which include burning, stinging, blurry vision, fatigue, redness, tearing, eyelid twitching, light sensitivity, and headaches. It’s so common that “we say that dry eye is dry to talk about,” jokes Dr. Joy Harewood, associate clinical professor at SUNY College of Optometry. “It’s most of our practice.”

All of the experts we spoke with recommend one simple treatment as a first line of defense: blinking more. “Blinking helps to smooth tears over your eyes, and when you’re staring at screens, you blink less. It can be brutal for the surface of your eyes,” explains Dr. Harewood. In order to prevent screen-time-induced dryness, three experts we spoke to recommend the 20-20-20 Rule: “After 20 minutes on your laptop, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet (or more) away from you,” explains Dr. Saniya Shoaib, an optometrist and founder of Sunny Eye Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And if 20 minutes seems to go by too fast, a one-minute break every 30 minutes works too. “Just make sure you’re blinking,” she adds. “That’s the important part.”

But if blinking more often isn’t quite enough to alleviate your dry-eye symptoms, we talked to all three eye experts about their favorite treatments for dry eyes, which range from microwavable eye masks and tabletop humidifiers to soothing gel eye drops — all of which you can purchase over the counter. (But scheduling a routine eye exam, our experts add, wouldn’t hurt, either, especially if this is a chronic issue for you.)

Artificial Tears

The best first treatment for dry eyes is perhaps also the most obvious: eye drops, also known as artificial tears. According to all three experts we spoke with, incorporating daily use of artificial tears can prevent and even treat dry eyes. Dr. Shoaib compares it to using moisturizer after washing your face: “I’m doing the same for my skin, so I should be doing it for my eyes, too.” And just as you cater your moisturizer to your skin type, you should choose your eye drops with your eye sensitivities in mind. “There are two types of artificial tears,” Dr. Harewood explains. “There are the preserved tears that come in your regular eye-drop bottle and then there are non-preserved tears that come in a carton [or single-use ampoules].” For those with dry eyes from computer use, both she and Dr. Shoaib recommend (and personally use) preserved tears from Blink and Systane, which are more affordable and easier to apply and store than preservative-free ones. (Their formulas are slightly different, so they recommend trying both and seeing which works best.) For mild discomfort or regular maintenance, both tell patients to use them two times per day or, “if we’re treating more severe dry eye,” says Dr. Harewood, “up to four times per day.”

While preserved eye drops can be more convenient, “preservatives themselves can cause dryness or discomfort” with long-term use, says Dr. Harewood, meaning preservative-free tears are the way to go for contact-lens wearers — who should only use preservative-free, contact-friendly eye drops — or those with severe dry eye. Dr. Dweck’s favorite kind is the preservative-free, individually packaged artificial tears from Refresh Plus, which feature more user-friendly packaging than that of other brands. “They’re reclosable, so it helps to protect them, and you can use them another time or two,” she says.

But if the single-serve ampoules look daunting (or difficult to keep track of), “the one that I carry here in the office is called Retaine, which is also available over the counter at every pharmacy,” says Dr. Shoaib. “It’s one of my favorites, because even in the bigger bottle, it comes preservative free.”

Eye Gels and Ointments

Though it sounds counterintuitive, because your eyes are closed all night, you might still wake up with dry eyes, because you aren’t able to blink while sleeping. So if your eyes are driest in the morning, Dr. Harewood and Dr. Dweck both suggest trying this nighttime gel from GenTeal Tears, which is essentially a thicker, more moisturizing eye drop that coats the surface of the eye. The reason it’s best used before bed is because it can cause slight blurriness — and though squeezing gel into your eyes may not sound particularly pleasant, both experts report that their patients find it “very refreshing.” Some even store it in the fridge so that it’s “cooling and soothing” at the same time, says Dr. Dweck. To apply it, “pull your lower eyelid down and squeeze until you’ve covered the lower portion of your eyelid, then blink, blink, blink to disperse it,” explains Dr. Harewood. “Your eyes will feel more refreshed [in the morning] than if you didn’t use it.”

“If someone needs more protection at bedtime, I’d highly recommend a lubricating eye ointment,” such as Lacri-Lube, says Dr. Dweck. It’s applied the same way as the eye gel, only it’s “more hydrating” and “gives you longer protection” and lubrication, she says. Her patients find it just as soothing as the eye gel, and the thicker formula helps retain tears and relieve nighttime dryness while sleeping.

Eye Masks

Dry eye can also be attributed to a dysfunction of oil glands in your tear ducts, explains Dr. Dweck, so a warm (and relaxing) compress can help relieve symptoms: “[Hot compresses] help those oil glands — it softens blocked oil in the glands and increases oil production.” She advises patients to microwave this eye compress from Bruder — she’s been using it herself for years, she adds — and apply it once a day, any time of day. (Even if you’re not sure it’s the oil glands causing the dryness, it still feels nice.)

If you really want to increase the humidity around your eyes at night, you could also try a pair of moisture-chamber goggles, suggests Dr. Harewood, like these well-reviewed ones from Eye Eco. “They’re not sexy,” she says, but “you wear them at night, and they do hold in the humidity around your eyes.”