Over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops can help relieve eye discomfort. However, they carry some risks, such as contamination and allergic reactions. They can also cause side effects.

OTC eye drops can help relieve various eye issues, such as dryness, redness, and itchiness. They offer convenience and accessibility without requiring a prescription.

However, like any medication, using OTC eye drops may have risks and potential side effects.

This article explores the risks relating to OTC eye drops. It also highlights the different types of OTC eye drops available and guides individuals on choosing the appropriate eye drop for their needs. Finally, it offers essential tips on applying them safely.

A person applying over-the-counter eye drops -1.Share on Pinterest
ljubaphoto/Getty Images

The tip of an eye drop bottle can become contaminated with bacteria or viruses, potentially leading to eye infections.

A 2022 research review found that around 24% of multi-use eye drop bottles became contaminated when people used them for more than 1 week.

To avoid contamination, people need to:

  • avoid sharing eye drops
  • ensure the tip does not come into contact with the eye or any other surface
  • make sure the safety seal is intact before opening the bottle
  • avoid using expired eye drops

An individual may also prefer to use single-use eye drops.

Some ingredients in eye drops may cause allergic reactions, leading to inflammation, itching, and swelling. Some people can also develop a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency.

To prevent an allergic reaction, a person should always check the ingredients before use and consult a doctor if symptoms occur.

Anaphylaxis: Symptoms and what to do

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

Was this helpful?

Some OTC eye drops contain preservatives, including an ingredient called benzalkonium chloride, which help give them a longer shelf life.

Recommendations state not to use preservative eye drops more than four times a day, as prolonged use may cause irritation.

If a person needs to apply eye drops more frequently, they can opt for preservative-free eye drops.

OTC eye drops may cause various side effects, which can differ depending on the specific type of eye drop.

Side effects may include:

  • Redness or irritation: Excessive use of certain eye drops may lead to redness or irritation of the eyes.
  • Blurry vision: Some eye drops can cause temporary blurriness after application, affecting visual clarity for a short period. A person needs to avoid driving or operating machinery until the blurring subsides.
  • Temporary stinging or burning sensation: The ingredients or preservatives in many eye drops may cause mild discomfort upon application.

OTC eye drops are generally safe when an individual uses them as the label directs and for the short-term relief of minor eye irritation.

However, a person should use them with caution and consult an eye care professional if they experience persistent symptoms or severe discomfort.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have warned people to stop using EzriCare and Delsam Pharma artificial tears after tests found a rare, extensively drug-resistant strain of the bacterium Pseudomonas. Additional investigation and guidance are currently pending.

Different types of OTC eye drops include the following.

Artificial tears

These eye drops lubricate the eyes and provide relief for dry eye and conjunctivitis, the latter of which people know as pink eye. These eye drops are free from preservatives, as these ingredients and other additives may further irritate dry eyes.

Decongestant eye drops

Decongestant eye drops are also known as anti-redness eye drops and help reduce symptoms of bloodshot eyes. They contain vasoconstrictors that reduce redness by narrowing blood vessels in the eyes.

Decongestant drops provide temporary relief. However, a person should not use them for more than 3 days, as prolonged use can lead to rebound redness.

Individuals should also avoid using anti-redness eye drops to treat glaucoma or conjunctivitis, as this may worsen symptoms.

Antihistamine eye drops

These eye drops relieve allergy-related symptoms such as itching and redness. Antihistamine eye drops block histamine receptors in the eyes.

Choosing an OTC eye drop depends on the cause of the eye issue. An eye doctor, such as an optometrist or ophthalmologist, or pharmacist may be able to advise a person on the right type of OTC eye drop for their needs.

Some essential factors to consider when selecting an OTC eye drop include:

  • Symptoms: A person needs to identify the specific eye discomfort they are experiencing.
  • Type of OTC eye drops: Understanding the difference between eye drops will help people minimize the risk of side effects.
  • Ingredients: Reading the product label will identify active ingredients and potential allergens.
  • Check for preservatives: If a person requires the use of eye drops more frequently, preservative-free formulations may be more suitable.
  • Contact lenses: A person may want to consider their daily routines and lifestyle, such as the need for on the go use. Those who wear contact lenses also need to consider lens compatibility. While many preservative-free artificial tear OTC eyedrops are safe to use with contact lenses, individuals who wear them need to avoid using OTC eye drops that contain thimerosal or benzalkonium chloride.

A person needs to apply OTC eye drops safely and effectively by following these steps:

  1. Wash the hands: Thoroughly clean the hands before touching the eyes or handling the eye drop bottle.
  2. Tilt the head back: Gently tilt the head backward while looking up at the ceiling
  3. Create a pocket: Pull down the lower eyelid with one hand to form a small pocket.
  4. Apply the drops: Hold the eye drop bottle upside down and squeeze one drop into the pocket with the other hand.
  5. Close the eyes: Close the eyes gently for a few seconds to allow the eye drop to spread evenly.
  6. Avoid touching: To prevent contamination, ensure that the tip of the bottle does not touch the eye or any other surface.
  7. Put the cap back on: Put the cap back on the eye drop bottle directly after use and store it according to the instructions.

OTC eye drops can temporarily relieve minor eye discomfort.

They are safe if a person uses them as a doctor or pharmacist instructs. However, individuals need to be aware of the potential risks and side effects.

It is essential to choose the appropriate type of eye drop for specific symptoms, avoid prolonged use, and consult an eye care professional if symptoms persist.