The People's Perspective on Medicine

Soothing Dry Eyes with Warm Compresses

Applying wet warm compresses and gentle massage to the eyelids can unblock the oil-forming glands and help dry eyes make better tears.

Dry eyes are an extremely common condition, and they can also be quite distressing. The eyes may feel constantly irritated, as though they had something in them. People with dry eyes don’t seem to make enough tears, and without appropriate treatment the disorder can grow worse. Sufferers may use artificial tears or other medicines to try to reverse the condition. Some of these are quite pricey, however. Could a simple home remedy using warm compresses help?

How Do You Use Warm Compresses to Soothe Dry Eyes?

Q. I am a retired medical provider with a suggestion. Dry eyes are caused in part by age-related changes in our tear films. The outer oily layer thickens and blocks the meibomian glands that make it. As a result, they don’t secrete it as readily and it’s not available to stabilize the water layer. Consequently, the tear film evaporates too easily.

Applying warm tap water compresses for 3 to 4 minutes while gently massaging the eyelids will soften those oils in the glands. Then the glands secrete more oil, which helps stabilize the tear film.

The warm compresses also increase blood flow to the lids to help them heal. This should be done three times a day for two weeks, then twice a day for two weeks and then every morning.

Artificial tears without benzalkonium can add significant relief. This takes time and effort, but in my experience it works.

Treating Meibomian Gland Problems:

A. Warm compresses are a classic treatment for dry eyes caused by meibomian gland dysfunction. You are right that when these oil-secreting glands get plugged, the tear film deteriorates.

Japanese researchers report that warm compresses containing menthol improve tear film volume and stability and ease dry eye symptoms (Arita et al, Scientific Reports, April 5, 2017).

LipiFlow for Meibomian Glands:

A machine that warms the eyelids and provides gentle pressure (LipiFlow) has received FDA approval. A single treatment can provide dry-eye relief up to a year (Blackie et al, Clinical Ophthalmology, July 26, 2016).

One drawback of the machine treatment, however, is expense. The office procedure can run to hundreds of dollars, while your recommended compress treatment is free.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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In December 2017 I was diagnosed with dry eye; doctor prescribed warm compresses and eyelid massage, using a gel-bead eye mask. They can be pricey, so I was happy to find one at TJMaxx for $4.00! Heated in microwave as directed, it remains warm enough to apply to my eyes for the prescribed 10 minutes, which I follow with bottom and top lid massaging, also as prescribed. I try to massage one eye at a time while keeping the mask over my eyes to keep them as warm as possible. I often can feel the release of oil from the glands. My doctor says I will have to do this every few days forever, to avoid unpleasant consequences.

Have been having dry eyes for over five years and tried Rx drops, eye plugs and over the counter eye drops. The plugs worked the first time but not the second time I used them. Then read about warm compress in the People’s Pharmacy and discovered it worked the first day I tried it. The problem is using a warm wash cloth, because to use it for three minutes the cloth needs to be rewarmed twice or more times. Then I found on Amazon a product designed for the very use of dry eyes. It’s called Thermalon Moist Heat Compress. It is very easy to use, cost little and stays warm longer than a wash cloth. A great way to deal with dry eyes that worked for me.

I too suffer from dry-eye. Every morning I would “cry” for several hours. When shopping or out, people would think I was crying for real. Both eyes – tears just roll down my cheeks. I too have tried ‘everything’ from $100+ a bottle RX to over the counter…..nothing worked.

I now use regular saline solution when I wake in the morning AND do warm compresses 2xweek and the ‘tearing’ is diminished to once a week if that!!!! Amazing results for me. :-)

I am 80 years old and have been dealing with dry eyes for the last 3 or 4 years. Tried several brands of artificial tears and warm compresses before I remembered what my dad had told me. “If you want good eyesight, eat your carrots”. Started eating 5 or 6 of the baby carrots about 4 weeks ago EVERY day and haven’t had to use eye drops since.

I recently had a sty and was putting on a warm damp compress. I immediately started to tear up and my sinuses began to drain, what a relief. I accidentally got the much need sinus relief, and a way to relieve my dry eyes.

I use a mask you can buy on-line at Amazon and other places. You heat in the microwave and then put on your eyes for 3 or 4 minutes- it stays warm much longer than a wet washcloth, and your eyes feel amazing afterwards. Your vision is blurry for a couple minutes after because of the oils secreted by your lids from the warmth. I would highly recommend this natural cure for anyone with dry eye issues.

Another reason for dry eyes might be that you need more liquids. My eye doctor told me that if the eyes were scratchy to be sure and drink more water.

Regarding my previous email on dry eye, there is a typo error, which should have said, I added 1,000 mcg of biotin, not 100,000 mcg. Sorry.

Larry G.

I agree that warm compresses help, however through serendipity I found something better. I’m in my late 70s and decided to add 10000 mcg of biotin to a B complex 50 formula that I was already taking, hoping to alleviate some splitting nails and skin problems and much to my surprise it greatly helped my dry eye condition. When first awakening, I still have dry eyes, but the condition quickly disappears. Also note, the B complex contains biotin, but it’s only 50 mcg, not 50 mg., and I was told that it’s because biotin is one of the more expensive elements of the complex. I hope this helps.

Larry G

I noticed that some products for extreme dry eyes contain mineral oil. Wouldn’t it be healthier to use coconut oil?

I’m glad to see you address the dry eye issue. My eyes were so dry at night until they literally felt like there were no tears, they scraped when I opened them. My optometrist gave me the same advise you gave. It works however one can’t use a compress and massage at the same time, soak first then gently massage along the very edge of the eyelids, especially the lower lids. This is free, who needs a very expensive treatment by a physician?

I have severe dry eyes. I tried punctal plugs, Restasis, and just about every artificial tear product on the market. Warm compresses have given me the best relief. If I remember to do it a couple of times a day, the relief is sustained. Nothing could be easier than wringing out a washcloth in very warm water and relaxing with it over my eyes for a few minutes. It costs nothing and is simple with no side effects.

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