Understanding Over-the-Counter Eye Drops

Understanding Over-the-Counter Eye Drops

If you’re not able or don’t want to visit the doctor, you may find yourself turning to eye drops to ease some minor eye discomfort or problem. The thing is, it’s a convenient remedy since most pharmacies stock a battery of different eye drops which can be used to treat everything from dry eye to ocular swelling. But, is it really the safest choice?

Understanding Over-the-Counter Eye DropsUseful as these drugs are, using them does carry some serious risks. Any pharmaceutical agent can cause problems if taken irresponsibly, and eye drops double down on that risk. Your eyes are among the most sensitive spots on your body, and carelessly using the wrong medication, or even too much of the right one, can put you in a world of hurt and even cause lasting damage. It’s really important to know when you should use OTC eye drops and when you should absolutely not.


By far the most commonly used eye drops are lubricants. These are simple, water-based concoctions. When used properly, they essentially replace the tears lacking in a consistently dry eye. Dry eye is a common, and increasingly common, nuisance. Causes are various – other drugs, windy conditions, and air conditioning can all cause dry eye – but one of the most common factors is computer use.

The average American adult spends nearly seven and a half hours per day using some form of digital device, whether they do so at work or at home. All that screen time is a recipe for dry eye, thanks to the fixed, unblinking stare that usually accompanies use of devices.

Dry eye is always irritating, but also poses greater risks to eye health. Over time, the rubbing encouraged by dry, itchy eyes can cause keratoconus, a re-shaping of the cornea that results in impaired vision. Infection also becomes a greater risk, as well as other long-term complications.

In short, dry eye isn’t something to just grin and bear, especially given how treatable it is. Lubricant eye drops, if used properly, are effective and can make life much more comfortable and eye-friendly.

However, anyone interested in using them should be cautious. Various side effects can crop up while using lubricants and some are serious. Some consistent users will eventually develop sensitivity to the preservatives used the drops. Sensitivity can put your right back to square one in terms of eye comfort, and maybe even past it, as users may experience red, burning, and stinging eyes. Preservative-free options may be the better bet for anyone using drops more than four times a day.

Infection is also a hazard when using eye drops. Be sure not to touch the applicator with your fingers, or you may wind up spreading bacteria to the drops. Also, if you choose to use preservative-free drops, make sure that your chosen brand comes in single-dose vials. A large bottle of preservative-free solution might be cheaper, but it’s also an inviting home for bacteria.


While decongestants are often sold shoulder-to-shoulder with lubricants at pharmacies, the two are essentially different classes of drug. Decongestants are only really useful as vasoconstrictors. If you happen to have dilated blood vessels in your eye, decongestants cause those arteries to tighten, rendering them less visible, and making your eyes appear whiter and more normal. The best known decongestant you’ll see at a pharmacy is Visine, long-known as a quick cure for obviously red eyes.

Helpful though they might be, decongestants shouldn’t be taken too often. Even if used properly to treat red eye, they can cause “rebound redness,” a condition in which eyes actually become drier and redder after taking decongestants, a problem that can persist even after a person stops taking the drug. Confusing them with lubricants is a surefire way to encounter the problem, so be sure to know what exactly you’re putting in your eyes.

Finally, they should never be used by patients with glaucoma, as their primary effect can actually make the condition worse.

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The other type of drop you’re likely to find at your local pharmacy, antihistamines are most commonly used to treat allergies. Using them helps cut short an allergic reaction and can make hayfever season much, much more bearable for people with itchy, allergic eyes.

Like decongestants, antihistamines can cause some burning or stinging shortly after application, although it generally passes quickly. And again, like decongestants, antihistamines shouldn’t be treated like common lubricant drops. They can cause serious problems for contact wearers, and even worse ones for glaucoma sufferers.

In some cases, antihistamines will slightly raise pressure in the eye, a problem for anyone already dealing with increased ocular pressure. Finally, you’ll also see some drugs sold as combined antihistamines/decongestants. Using one of these as a lubricant is likely to get you the worst of both worlds.

Alternatives to Eye Drops

If all that sounds a little worrying, then never fear, plenty of drug-free remedies exist. Simply instituting good work habits can help. Take breaks more frequently to ensure that you don’t spend too much unbroken time staring at a screen.

There’s also some evidence that your diet can make a difference. Upping your intake of omega-3 fatty acids could help your eyes stay lubricated; try eating more fish, such as halibut or salmon, to get that boost. As well, there are natural vision supplements that can significantly improve eyesight. It’s just a matter of thinking about your lifestyle and what you eat and starting a few really good habits.

About the Author

Avatar for Tyler Sorensen

Tyler Sorensen is the President and CEO of Rebuild Your Vision. Formerly, Tyler studied Aeronautics with the dreams of becoming an airline pilot, however, after 9/11 his career path changed. After graduating top of his class with a Bachelor of Science degree in Informational Technologies and Administrative Management, he and his brother decided to start Rebuild Your Vision in 2002. With the guidance of many eye care professionals, including Behavioral Optometrists, Optometrists (O.D.), and Ophthalmologists (Eye M.D.), Tyler has spent over a decade studying the inner workings of the eye and conducting research.

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