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Antibiotic eye drops: What to know

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What are theyAntibiotic eye drop listTopical and oral optionsViral vs. Bacterial infectionCausesContacting a doctorSummary
Antibiotic eye drops are the first-line treatment for eye infections. Doctors typically recommend antibiotic eye drops for treating bacterial eye infections.
Medically reviewed by William C Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Updated on

Viruses and bacteria can cause eye infections. An eye infection may cause discomfort, including redness, tearing, and pus discharge.

A doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops if you have developed a bacterial infection. However, other treatment options for eye infections are available, including oral medications.

What are antibiotic eye drops?

Close up and upside down image of a female laying down and putting antibiotic eyedrops in their eye
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A doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops to people with a bacterial eye infection. These medications kill the bacteria that have entered the cornea, which is the transparent layer of the front of the eye.

Antibiotic eye drops may look similar to artificial tears. However, they contain a medication to treat infections.

Antibiotic eye drops

There are various antibiotic eye drops for treating eye infections, including:

The type of antibiotic eye drops doctors may prescribe vary depending on the type of infection you have.

The eyedrops should clear a bacterial infection within 3 days. If it does not, you should contact your eye doctor for further advice.

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Are all eyedrops for bacterial infections prescription-only?

A doctor must prescribe you antibiotic eye drops. If you suspect you may have an eye infection, consider contacting a doctor, as they can recommend the most appropriate treatment for your eye condition.

Are there any over-the-counter options?

Over-the-counter options may help with the symptoms of an eye infection. However, you should contact a doctor if an infection gets worse or does not show signs of improvement.

You may also consider contacting a doctor if you experience eye pain or if you have any other concerns about your eyes.

Do eye drops have side effects?

Antibiotic eye drops may have side effects, including:

  • blurred vision
  • mild stinging
  • a strange taste in your mouth

Some people may also develop an allergic reaction after using antibiotic eye drops. The symptoms of an allergic reaction may include:

  • skin rash
  • redness or swelling in your eyes and eyelids
  • swelling in your face or lips
  • difficulty breathing

If you experience any signs of an allergic reaction, you should immediately contact a doctor or healthcare professional.

Topical and oral options for eye infections

For bacterial infections, topical ointments include neomycin polymyxin (Bacitracin) and erythromycin.

However, topical antibiotics do not enter the eye as well as drops, so once the infection reaches inside the eye, an eye doctor, or ophthalmologist, relies on intravenous (IV) and intraocular drug administration. Intraocular is when the medication is injected directly into a part of the eye.

Viral infection treatments

Instead of antibiotic eye drops, doctors may recommend topical or oral medications for treating eye infections. Typically, doctors only use topical and oral antibiotics for viral eye infections. These may include:

The type of medication a doctor may prescribe you may vary depending on the infection that requires treatment.

Viral infection vs. bacterial infection

Viruses and bacteria can both cause eye infections. While antibiotic eye drops can effectively treat viral and bacterial infections, antibacterial eye drops have no effect if the infection is viral.

People with a viral eye infection may experience symptoms, including:

  • eye redness
  • feeling as though something is in your eye
  • light sensitivity
  • itching
  • burning
  • watery discharge

Viral eye infections almost always affects only one eye.

People with a bacterial eye infection may experience symptoms such as:

  • eye redness
  • feeling as though something is in your eye
  • matting of your eyelashes in the morning
  • white-yellow pus discharge
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • the development of small bumps called papillae in the lining of your eyelids, known as the palpebral conjunctiva

Bacterial eye infections may occur in only one eye but can eventually end up affecting both.

Doctors may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or a topical ointment to treat bacterial infections. In some cases, they may also suggest taking oral antibiotics.

If you have a viral infection, a doctor may recommend taking antiviral medications, depending on the severity. However, mild infections may go away without treatment within a couple of weeks and without any long-term consequences.

What can cause bacterial eye infections?

Bacterial eye infections are the most common type of eye infection, and touching your eyes without first washing your hands could lead to a bacterial infection.

Other common causes of bacterial eye infections have a link to contact lens use. Wearing dirty contact lenses or sleeping in lenses that are not for overnight use may cause an infection.

Common eye infections

Conjunctivitis is the most common eye infection, and a virus is often the cause. Other eye infections may include infectious keratitis and endophthalmitis.

When to contact a doctor

If you think you may have an eye infection, you should contact a doctor regardless of the infection type. They can diagnose which infection affects your eyes and recommend the most appropriate treatment for your condition.

You should also contact a doctor if, about 3 days after starting your treatment, your eye infection does not improve.


Antibiotic eye drops are often the first-line treatment for bacterial eye infections. However, they are ineffective in treating viral infections. But antiviral eyedrops are available for several common viral eye infections. Doctors may also prescribe topical ointments or oral tablets for treating some eye infections.

People with a bacterial eye infection often experience redness in the affected eye, the feeling of a foreign body, and a discharge of pus.

If you suspect you may have an eye infection, you should consider contacting a doctor or healthcare professional. They can recommend the most appropriate treatment for your infection.

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