The Link Between Dry Eyes and Depression

Dry eyes affect millions of Americans, but the issue ranges from mild to severe. For some, eye drops or a simple lifestyle change will get them back to normal. For others with chronic dry eye disease, it is a persistent problem that can affect quality of life if left untreated.

This constant irritating condition can negatively impact your life and hold you back from the activities you enjoy. The serious problems associated with chronic dry eye have led doctors to question whether there is a connection between chronic dry eye and depression.

Can dry eyes lead to depression? Can depression cause dry eyes? Well, let’s dig deeper into how these conditions may affect one another.

What Causes Dry Eyes?

Some causes of dry eyes include:

  • Looking at digital screens frequently and for long periods of time.
  • Not making enough tears or making low-quality tears.
  • Windy, smoky, or dry environments or environments with toxins like air pollution.
  • Seasonal changes.
  • Old age.
  • Hormonal changes such as during pregnancy or menopause.
  • Side effects of different medications.
  • Other health issues such as diabetes, thyroid issues, autoimmune disorders, or Sjögren syndrome.
  • Laser eye surgery.
  • Wearing contact lenses.

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What Are Symptoms of Dry Eyes?

People with dry eyes often experience high levels of discomfort. Some symptoms of dry eyes include:

  • Stinging, burning, or pressure.
  • Sharp or throbbing pain.
  • Dry or scratchy feeling.
  • Gritty feeling like something is in your eye.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Redness.
  • Light sensitivity.

However, some of the milder symptoms may indicate a larger problem. Chronic dry eye can lead to vision loss and may signify other major health complications.

Chronic dry eye complications

If left untreated, chronic dry eye can lead to:

  • Corneal ulcers and partial or full blindness.
  • Heavy inflammation and conjunctivitis.
  • Inability to wear contact lenses.
  • Difficulty reading, working, or driving due to worsening blurry vision.
  • Difficulty keeping your eyes open.
  • Headaches and even worse migraines.
  • Vision loss.

As you can imagine, beyond the discomfort and pain, some of these complications can impede your lifestyle. Having difficulty keeping your eyes open or blurry vision can hold you back from activities you love — like reading, watching movies with friends, camping, art, or playing music — or even get in the way of your job.

These serious issues can damage your ability to enjoy your life or take care of your family, which is just one reason why there is a link between dry eyes and depression.

Dry Eyes and Depression

Chronic dry eye can clearly play a role in your quality of life and your mental health. It’s why doctors are exploring the connection between dry eyes and depression. Though there are some medications for depression that can cause dry eye side effects, the link goes deeper than that.

Can depression cause dry eyes?

According to the “Association Between Depression and Severity of Dry Eye Symptoms, Signs, and Inflammatory Markers in the DREAM Study” published in JAMA Ophthalmology in March 2022, depression can exacerbate the symptoms of chronic dry eye. The study found that those who screened positive for depression generally had worse dry eye symptoms.

After all, depression changes lifestyle habits, such as spending more time in front of a computer or TV screen. This can lead to dry eyes or worsen your depression.

But it goes both ways. According to the umbrella review “Association between dry eye disease and depression” published in Frontiers in Public Health in November 2022, dry eyes can hurt your mental health, including associations with depression. This is because dry eye symptoms affect people’s everyday lives. They can dictate what activities people can participate in, their mood, and their overall physical comfort.

The exact nature of the relationship between dry eyes and depression is still undergoing study. It seems depression can serve as both a possible cause and a possible effect of dry eyes — and vice versa.

Dry eyes and depression similarities

Another reason these conditions are so intertwined is that dry eyes and depression share some risk factors and related issues, such as:

  • Gender and hormonal changes.
  • Smartphone use.
  • Old age.
  • Inflammation.
  • High anxiety.
  • Sleep disorders.
  • Suicide risk.
  • Reduced work productivity.
  • Inability to manage daily tasks or engage in activities you enjoy.
  • Sad or pessimistic mood.

Staying aware of this connection between dry eyes and depression is advisable because your dry eye treatment may need to include attention to your mental health.

When to Seek Help for Dry Eyes

Some mild dry eye symptoms simply require reducing screen time or over-the-counter artificial tears. But if these are not working or symptoms are worsening, it’s time to see your doctor.

Keep in mind that your dry eye treatment may need to include support for your mental health. The way it impacts your life can affect your emotional well-being.

Reach out to your doctor to learn more about how you can support your mental health and for treatment options related to dry eyes.

Ching-Yao Tsai, Zhu Liduzi Jiesisibieke, and Tao-Hsin Tung. Association between dry eye disease and depression: An umbrella review. Frontiers in Public Health, National Library of Medicine. Link

David Hutton. Can depression drive severity of dry eye symptoms, inflammatory markers? Ophthalmology Times. Link

National Eye Institute. Dry Eye. National Institutes of Health. Link

Yi Zhou, BA, James Murrough, MD, PhD, Yinxi Yu, MS. Association Between Depression and Severity of Dry Eye Symptoms, Signs, and Inflammatory Markers in the DREAM Study. JAMA Ophthalmology. Link

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