Are Over the Counter Eye Drops Ideal for Dry Eye?

Eye drops are commonly used to treat dry eye symptoms. Are over-the-counter drops up to the task, or not?

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Risks of Over-the-Counter Eye Drops

Preservatives: Potential risks from eye drops can include the potential irritation if drops with preservatives are used too often. Additionally, some people may be sensitive to an ingredient in the preservatives, also leading to eye irritation. For people with particularly sensitive eyes, preservative free drops may be the safer option. Always take care to check the label of the eye drops you purchase.

Contamination: If the tip of the eye drop bottle touches the eye or another surface, it can become contaminated. To avoid this, be very careful when handling and applying the bottle while it is open.

Overuse: Over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops are designed for occasional use. Regular and prolonged use of these drops can lead to a condition known as rebound hyperemia, where the eyes become excessively red and irritated. It may also decrease the natural tear production of your eyes, leading to chronic dryness.

Allergic Reactions: Some individuals may experience allergic reactions to certain ingredients in OTC eye drops. Symptoms can include itching, swelling, redness, and discomfort. If you notice any of these symptoms after using eye drops, discontinue their use and consult with your eye care professional.

Masking Serious Conditions: While over the counter eye drops can provide temporary relief from minor irritations, they should not be used as a substitute for a comprehensive eye examination if symptoms persist. Prolonged irritation or discomfort may be indicative of more serious conditions such as infections, allergies, or chronic eye diseases that require professional attention from our eye doctor.

Drug Interactions: Certain ingredients in OTC eye drops may interact negatively with other medications you are taking, particularly if you have a pre-existing medical condition. Always discuss with your healthcare provider or pharmacist if you are on any other medication before using eye drops.

Incorrect Usage: Incorrect usage of eye drops can cause harm. For instance, using the wrong type of drops for your condition, such as using drops designed for redness relief on an infected eye, can potentially worsen the condition. It's also important to note that some eye drops should not be used while wearing contact lenses. Always read the instructions carefully and consult with an optometrist if in doubt.

Dependency: Some eye drops, particularly those designed for redness relief, can cause dependency with long-term use. This means that your eyes may become accustomed to the drops and require them for normal function. Discontinuing the drops may then lead to increased redness and irritation.

The Purpose of Eye Drops for Dry Eye

The Purpose of Eye Drops for Dry Eye

Eye drops used for dry eye are generally not designed to fix whatever the dry eye’s underlying cause is, rather to alleviate the symptoms. To achieve this, they contain substances which help the eyes retain moisture, lubricants, and electrolytes.

Differences From Prescription Eye Drops

A main difference between over-the-counter and prescription eye drops is that prescription drops can also include medication to treat chronic eye problems. For this reason, most prescription drops should not be used for standard dry eye.

Types of Over the Counter Eye Drops

Types of Over the Counter Eye Drops

There are two types of over-the-counter eye drops: those with preservatives, and those that are preservative free.

Drops With Preservatives

Eye drops which contain preservatives will have a longer shelf life, as the preservative chemicals prevent bacteria from growing. For a customer, this means the bottle can be used for an extended length of time without concern of anything growing in the solution.

However, the chemicals can cause irritation to worsen, if used too often. For this reason, doctors recommend you not use these drops more than four times daily.

Preservative-Free Eye Drops

Preservative-free drops more commonly come in single-use vials, to prevent contamination of an open bottle. Due to the lack of preservatives, you will need to purchase more of it. However, if you need to apply the drops more than four times a day, this is the better option.

Side Effects

Eye drops can lead to side effects, such as cloudy vision just after the application. Generally speaking, you should avoid operating a vehicle or heavy machinery for several minutes following the application of eye drops. 

Allergic reactions can also occur in some cases, so be alert for signs of an allergic reaction following application.

The Purpose of Eye Drops for Dry Eye
Dry Eye optometry and eye care
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