Magnifying glass pupil in eye

Chronic Dry Eyes Versus Occasional Dryness: What is the Difference?

Nearly everyone experiences occasional dryness of their eyes. This dryness may cause itching, irritation, or a burning sensation. Dry eyes may also feel gritty, grainy, or like there is something stuck in the eye. Often, this dryness is temporary and goes away on its own.1,2

However, in some cases, the dryness does not go away. This is when occasional eye dryness turns into chronic dry eye.1,2

When does an issue become chronic?

Like many medical issues, dry eye can be classified as temporary or chronic. A condition that is temporary will either go away on its own or has a reversible cause. The common cold is an example of a temporary condition that usually resolves with minimal treatment.

Conditions that last a long time or have a non-reversible cause are chronic. An example of this is diabetes. There are treatments available, but it can be lifelong. Plus, the underlying cause of diabetes is not completely reversible.

The amount of time needed to pass before a condition is considered chronic varies from issue to issue. A condition may also become chronic when it does not respond to typical treatments.

Causes of temporary or occasional dry eye

Temporary dryness of the eye can be caused by many things. A person’s environment can be a big factor. Taking a trip to an area that has very dry air, sitting near an air heater, or riding in an airplane can all be environmental causes of temporary dry eye.1,2

Spending a long time in front of computer screens or binge-watching TV can also cause temporary dryness. This is because we blink less when focusing on screens. Blinking helps spread tears across our eyes. This creates lubrication and washes away dirt or foreign objects. Wearing a pair of contact lenses too long can also lead to dry eye. Some drugs, especially allergy drugs, can cause eye dryness as a side effect.1,2

In all of these situations, the underlying cause is reversible. Contacts can be taken out, and drugs can be changed. Or, screen time can be limited, and a person may return to a more humid environment. This kind of temporary dryness is incredibly common. It can come and go as causes arise and resolve.1,2

Causes of chronic dry eye

A person crosses into having chronic dry eye when the underlying cause is not reversible. It also occurs when dryness does not respond to typical treatments. If a person permanently lives in a dry environment or regularly has lots of screen time, their dryness may become long-term.1,2

A person may have chronic dry eye because of a problem with tear production or maintenance. Tears have 3 layers made of oil, water, and mucus. If there is an underlying issue with one of these layers, tear quality may be poor. This can cause chronic dry eye.1,2

Chronic dry eye may also develop after eye surgery, like LASIK. Some chronic health conditions cause long-term dryness. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, thyroid problems, and diabetes.1,2

Tear production also decreases as we age. Since aging consistently continues, this makes it a potential cause of chronic dry eye.1,2

Treatment differences

Temporary dryness and chronic dry eye may also differ in treatment. In temporary eye dryness, treatment is aimed at reversing the underlying cause. Common treatments and lifestyle changes for temporary dryness include:1,2

  • Using humidifiers
  • Taking breaks from screens
  • Applying warm compresses to the eyes
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Decreasing caffeine
  • Using over-the-counter lubricating eye drops

In chronic dry eye, some of the same treatment options may be helpful. However, more approaches may be needed. If untreated, chronic dry eye can lead to scarring of the surface of the eyes. This can cause permanent damage or vision changes.1,2

In some cases of chronic dryness, drops to reduce eye inflammation or improve tear production may be helpful. Oral antibiotics may be used if a person’s chronic dry eye is due to consistent irritation or inflammation of their eyelids (blepharitis). Other drugs target tear production. These can also play a role in decreasing eye dryness.1,2

In some cases, tear duct openings can be physically blocked with punctal plugs. This prevents tear drainage and keeps eyes moist. Surgery may also be helpful for some people with chronic dry eye.1,2

Is chronic dry eye a disease?

Because temporary dryness often resolves quickly, it is not a medical condition or disease. However, when temporary dryness turns into chronic dry eye, that status can change. Because of its long-term nature and need for regular treatment, chronic dry eye may be considered a medical condition.1,2

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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