Harvard Health Letter

Soothing dry eyes

New research finds caffeine may help.

For the millions of people who suffer from dry-eye syndrome—a low moisture level in the eyes that causes a stinging, burning sensation—a solution may be waiting in a cup of coffee or tea. In a study published in the journal Ophthalmology, people who consumed caffeine produced more tears than those who took a placebo. "This is an interesting study, the first I know of which addresses the effect of caffeine directly on tear volume," says Dr. Jason Rothman, an ophthalmologist at Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston. "There is evidence from other studies which suggests caffeine may increase other secretions, such as stomach acid and saliva. But the effects of caffeine may be different from person to person."

The importance of tears

Dry-eye syndrome causes more than just a reduction in the amount of tears. It's also associated with a change in the tear ingredients. Tears are a mixture of oils, water and mucus, which help protect our eyes from infection by keeping them lubricated and washing away dirt and other particles.

You may have dry eyes because of a change in tear ingredients or because you're not producing enough tears. Both can be caused by aging, autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, some eyelid problems or side effects from medications such as antihistamines. "Examination of the lids, eyelid movements, tear film, and the surface of the eye can give us clues as to a cause," says Dr. Rothman. Left untreated, dry eye can lead to tear film inflammation, eye damage, vision problems, and extreme discomfort.

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