Purpose. Tear film instability and tear hyperosmolarity are considered core mechanisms in the development of dry eye. The authors hypothesize that evaporation and instability produce transient shifts in tear hyperosmolarity that lead to chronic epithelial stress, inflammation, and symptoms of ocular irritation. The purpose of this study was to provide indirect evidence of short-term hyperosmolar conditions during tear instability and to test whether the corneal epithelium responds to transient hyperosmolar stress. Methods. Five subjects kept one eye open as long as possible, and overall discomfort and sensations associated with tear break-up were scaled. Later, the same subjects used the same scales to report discomfort sensations after instillation of NaCl and sucrose hyperosmolar drops (300-1000 mOsM/kg). A twoalternative, forced-choice experiment was used to obtain osmolarity thresholds. In the second experiment, primary cultured bovine corneal epithelial cells were transiently stressed with the same range of hyperosmolar culture medium, and proinflammatory mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPKs) were measured by Western blot analysis. Results. Tear instability led to an average discomfort rating of 6.13 and sensations of burning and stinging. These sensations also occurred with hyperosmolar solutions (thresholds, 450-460 mOsM/kg) that required 800 to 900 mOsM/kg to generate the same discomfort levels reported during tear break-up. MAPK was activated at 600 mOsM/kg of transient hyperosmolar stress. Conclusions. These experiments provide a link between hyperosmolarity and tear instability, suggesting that hyperosmolar levels in the tear film may transiently spike during tear instability, resulting in corneal inflammation and triggering sensory neurons.