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Warm vs Cool Compress for Dry Eye

Views: 52848
Reviewed by Nymark M, PhD on November 2, 2016

Dry eye syndrome is believed to be one of the most under-diagnosed and under-treated problems in American adults to date. One of the reasons for this is that, at least in the beginning, it often only presents mild symptoms, which is something that people prefer to manage at home, rather than seeking the help of a physician.

One popular form of self-treatment, and one that is in fact recommended by physicians for people who suffer from dry eye syndrome in any stage, is that of the application of compresses. Those who have mild symptoms may find that they find complete relief by applying a compress. However, if symptoms persist or get worse, then it is important to seek medical advice. There may, for instance, be options available to stop your tears from draining too quickly, or to improve the overall quality of your tears.

Compresses are effective, easy to do, and don’t really cost anything. Furthermore, you can apply them as often as you want. You can also choose between warm compresses and cold compresses. Some people feel they have more relief with one of these, others prefer to alternate between the two.

Treating the Cause of Dry Eye Syndrome

If you suffer from dry eyes, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention. This is because dry eyes are often symptomatic of other health conditions. For instance, it may be caused by medication that you are currently taking, and your doctor may want to change your prescription. Alternatively, if you have conditions such as ectropion, whereby your eyelid turns outwards, surgery may be required. Oculoplastic surgeons are experts in resolving this condition. Rheumatoid arthritis is also a common cause of dry eyes and treatment does exist for this as well.

Keeping Your Eyes Clean

Regardless of what type of treatment you use to manage your dry eyes, it is vital that you keep your eyes clean. This helps to prevent inflammation and bacterial and viral cross-contamination. If you have eyelid inflammation, or other infections, including blepharitis or conjunctivitis, good eye hygiene is essential to help you manage the symptoms. If you wash your eyelids gently and frequently, you should find that the condition will get a bit better. One way to achieve that is by using a warm compress.

To use a warm compress, simply warm up a clean washcloth and hold it over your eyes, with your eyes closed, for five minutes. If it cools, rewet it and replace it. After five minutes, gently rub the cloth over your eyelids, paying particular attention to the base of your eyelashes. This will help loosen up any remaining debris. It is often recommended to do this every day, even if you find that the symptoms of your eye condition have been relieved. That is because any bacteria or viruses may still be present, meaning your condition can return if you stop cleaning your eyes.

Warm Compress vs Cold Compress

The tear film is actually a complex biological element that is made up of three specific parts, which are the:

  1. Aqueous, or watery element
  2. Lipid, or oily element
  3. Nutritional element

When someone has dry eyes, there is generally an issue with at least one of these three elements. Most commonly, people find that their tears drain away too quickly, evaporate too quickly, or don’t nourish the eyes enough. The Meibomian oil glands, found in the eyelids, are responsible for the production of the oily layer. This has to be in place to stop tears from evaporating quickly. On the other hand, dry eyes can also be present because people use computers too long and forget to blink. The result is that there is an insufficient production of tears, and it tends to be the watery layer that becomes dysfunctional.

The table below highlights the key differences between warm and cold compresses.

Compress How It Works Best For
Warm Stimulates the oil glands to produce more oil.

Prevents tears from evaporating too quickly.

Improves blood circulation.

Helps to relax the eyes.

Makes people feel more comfortable.

Encourages sleep by relaxing the eyes.

Those with Meibomian gland dysfunction.

Those who find their tears evaporate too quickly.

Those who have difficulty sleeping because of strained eyes.

Cold Helps to reduce the perceived “heat” of having irritated eyes.

Helps to circulate the blood around the eyes.

Helps to relieve eye strain.

Those who frequently use screens and electronic devices, meaning they forget to blink.

Those who struggle to read because their eyes are burning or red, and painful.

So which one of the two is better? Basically, there is no clear-cut answer to that question. Rather, the recommendation is to start with the cold compress, when you have time to just sit back and relax for a while. Apply it for around five minutes. If you find that this did not provide you with any relief, go for the warm compress instead.

On the other hand, if you frequently wake up with crusty, sticky, or flaky eyes, it is more likely that there is a problem with the lipid layer of the tear film. In that case, it is recommended to use the warm compress instead, as it effectively stimulates the glands to unblock themselves.

The most important thing is that you only use completely clean compresses. Additionally, if you use your own cloths or towels for them, make sure they are soft. The eyes and eyelids are incredibly delicate organs, and it is all too easy to cause further irritation and actually make the situation worse. And always consult with a physician if you find that none of your efforts work.

Resources and References:

All About Vision – Ask the Dry Eye Doctor (AllAboutVision.com)

Mayo Clinic – Diseases and Conditions: Dry Eyes Treatments and Drugs (MayoClinic.org)