Gritty and Itchy Eyes with Chronic Dry Eye
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last updated: May 2023
Chronic dry eye, also known as dry eye syndrome, is a disease of the surface of the eye that can happen when your eye does not make enough tears or there is an issue with the tears that are made. Dry eye disease leads to symptoms that can make you feel frustrated and uncomfortable, like:1-3
Another common symptom of dry eye is a gritty, sandy, or itchy feeling of the eyes. It may feel like something is stuck in or on your eye. The surface of the eye contains many nerves and is known to be one of the most powerful pain generators in the body. This painful and irritating sensation can make your daily life unbearable at times.
Knowing what gritty eyes are, what causes them, and methods to relieve them can help you manage this uncomfortable symptom.
Is there something in my eye making it feel gritty?
The cornea is the thin, clear membrane covering the surface of your eye. The cornea serves 3 main purposes: protection and refraction (bending) of light for normal vision. The cornea also contains many nerves that can send pain or irritation signals to the brain in the setting of chronic dry eye.2
The cornea relies on tears to maintain moisture. When the tears are working correctly, you blink and may not even notice your eye. When there is a problem with the moisture on the cornea, you can tell. It may feel like there is something in or on your eyes, like sand or dirt.
The reason the cornea is so good at allowing you to see is because of the tear film. The tear film is the perfect mix of oil on water, held onto the surface of the eye by mucus. The tears are continuously smoothed over the eye with every blink. Without the moisturizing tears on its surface, the cornea is not a polished lens. Instead, the cornea is rough, like sandpaper.3
Why does dry eye syndrome make my eyes gritty and itchy?
For someone with normal eye moisture, the corneal surface stays moist between blinks. This allows for easy, smooth blinking. In dry eye disease, the eye surface becomes dry between blinks. The rough corneal surface leads to the scratchy, itchy, or gritty feeling that happens with dry eyes. Blinking also happens less often in dry eye disease, making the condition worse.3
Is there anything I can do?
While dry eye cannot be cured, there are ways you can manage it. Treatment for dry eye usually starts with treating whatever may be causing it. Talking to your doctor is an important part of getting the treatment you need. Your doctor will be able to look at your eyes and make sure you do not have anything stuck in or on your eye.
Self-care for gritty or itchy eyes related to dry eye may include:7,8
- Artificial tear drops
- Applying warm compresses to your eyes
- Taking frequent breaks when using a computer or watching television
- Gently massaging your eyelids to allow the glands on the eyelid to release the oily part of the tear film
Your doctor may have other treatments, eye drops, or drugs that will help with your gritty or itchy eyes. Everyone is different when it comes to dry eye symptoms, and it is important to make sure you get the treatment that is best for you.7,8