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Your guide to over-the-counter eye drops

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How do they work?TypesFor dry eyesFor eye rednessFor allergiesFor viral conjunctivitisFor contact lens wearersPrescription eye dropsSummary
Over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops are often the first line of treatment for dry eyes, red eyes, allergies, and eye infections.
Medically reviewed by Grace Zhang, MD
Updated on March 14, 2023

Eye drops can often remedy pain or discomfort associated with dry eyes and other ocular conditions. There are many different types of OTC eye drops with different mechanisms of action.

Customers often feel overwhelmed by the choice of over-the-counter eye drops available. The article will provide some information about OTC eyedrops and what conditions they can help with.

How do eye drops work? 

A person with their head tilted backward, using eye drops
RealPeopleGroup/Getty Images

Many available eye drops contain active ingredients that help treat specific symptoms such as eye dryness or redness. Typically, they come in a small squeeze bottle, and, depending on the condition and solution, you drop them into your eye several times a day.

Dry eyes

The body naturally keeps the eyes lubricated with tears. When we blink, our natural tears spread over the eye to help keep them moist. This lubrication is essential to preventing damage to the eyes and maintaining comfort.

The stinging, burning, and irritation of dry eyes result from inadequate tear production. OTC eye drops can provide the right type of “artificial tears” to moisten and lubricate the eye. 

Learn more about the treatments for dry eyes here.

Red eyes

The surface of your eye has small blood vessels that expand when irritated, causing eye redness. This can occur due to tiredness, allergies, or exposure to irritants such as smoke.

Redness-reducing eye drops often use vasoconstrictors or decongestant drugs that can cause blood vessels to expand after the drops wear off. Doctors typically recommend using these types of eye drops for a limited time.

This ”rebound redness“ can worsen over time. As a result, doctors may recommend lubrication eye drops to treat the cause of redness instead.

Allergies

Allergies are the most common cause of eye inflammation. A 2015 review suggests that OTC eye drops that block histamine response may help relieve itching, redness, and tearing.

Eye infections

Viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are two common eye infections that can cause redness and swelling.

Common treatments for viral conjunctivitis include:

  • cold compresses
  • OTC artificial tears
  • topical antihistamines

For severe cases, doctors may prescribe topical steroids. For bacterial conjunctivitis, antibiotic eye drops may be more suitable.

Types of eye drops

There are two main types of eye drops: those that contain preservatives and those that are preservative-free. 

Eye drops that contain preservatives come in bottles that contain multiple doses. The preservatives prevent bacteria from growing in the solution. However, preservatives may irritate some people’s eyes.

Preservative-free eye drops come in single-use doses that people should use immediately.

When applying eye drops, it is crucial to avoid touching your eye with the dropper to avoid eye infections. 

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OTC eye drops for dry eyes

Artificial tears are eye drops containing carboxymethylcellulose to help lubricate the eyes. They use an electrolyte formula to improve salt balance.

Benefits:

  • lubricates the eyes
  • do not cause rebound redness

Potential side effects:

  • temporary blurred vision when applying drops
  • minor irritation

OTC eye drops for red eyes

Decongestant eye drops may offer short-term relief for irritation and eye redness. Active ingredients such as Naphazoline and Tetrahydrozoline are common in decongestant eye drops.

Benefits:

  • relieve redness while also targeting allergies that often cause redness
  • clinically tested 

Potential side effects:

  • rebound redness
  • irritation

OTC eye drops for allergies

Antihistamine eye drops can help to reduce symptoms associated with allergies. These eye drops often contain ketotifen — one of the most common ingredients for relieving allergic reactions in the eye. These eye drops are not safe for use with contact lenses.

Benefits:

  • prescription strength
  • clinically tested

Potential side effects:

  • headaches
  • stuffy or runny nose

OTC eye drops for viral conjunctivitis

Eye drops cannot cure viral conjunctivitis but may reduce irritation and other unwanted symptoms, but they do not cure the viral infection. Some irritation-reducing eye drops use botanical extracts to stimulate the body’s natural defenses against eye irritation and discomfort.

Benefits:

  • uses natural ingredients
  • can be administered as often as needed

Potential side effects:

  • eye watering
  • sensitivity to light

OTC eye drops for contact lens wearers

Contact lens wearers need lubrication but without the use of preservatives. These drops often contain polyethylene glycol and propylene glycol to moisturize and soothe without preservatives.

Benefits:

  • safe for use with contacts
  • lubricates the eye quickly

Potential side effects: 

  • blurred vision
  • eyelash stickiness

Prescription eye drops

Prescription eye drops are more common for severe conditions that require more aggressive treatment, such as bacterial conjunctivitis.

Antibacterial eye drops cannot treat eye discomfort resulting from viruses. A common prescription eye drop for bacterial infections is ofloxacin, a type of medication called a quinolone antibiotic.

It kills the bacteria that settle in the eye and prevents further growth. Side effects may include blurry vision, dry eyes, or sensitivity to light.

Summary

OTC eye drops can be a safe and effective way to relieve the symptoms of eye inflammation and irritation due to a host of common issues, such as dry eyes, allergies, and infections. However, it is important to see a doctor if home remedies do not improve symptoms.

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