Over-the-counter eye drops are one way to manage symptoms of dry eye. If you’re experiencing new or increased irritation, redness, or eye discomfort, it could be a sign of eye drop overuse.

Dry eye can happen to anyone. But if you’re experiencing persistent dryness, you may be living with a condition called dry eye disease (DED). It’s also known as dry eye syndrome and is often simply referred to as “dry eye.”

DED is one of the most common reasons for a visit to the eye doctor. It happens when your tears evaporate too quickly or when the glands that produce tears don’t make enough to lubricate your eye.

Not having a proper tear barrier between your eye and your eyelid can cause a variety of eye symptoms, such as:

  • discomfort or pain
  • redness
  • burning or stinging
  • light sensitivity
  • blurry vision
  • scratchy sensation
  • a feeling that there’s something in your eye or under your eyelid

To relieve dry eye, doctors typically recommend over-the-counter (OTC) lubricating eye drops known as artificial tears. While artificial tears are generally safe and effective when used as directed, overuse may cause additional eye issues.

If you’re exceeding the recommended dosing on your eye drop label or using eye drops more often than instructed by your eye doctor, you may be overusing your eye drops.

Overuse might not always cause an issue, but it’s a good idea to call your doctor if you start to experience any new or worsening eye symptoms, such as:

  • increasing redness
  • unrelenting blurry vision
  • excessive eye watering
  • persistent irritation

These symptoms may indicate that you’re overusing eye drops and that they’re doing more harm than good.

While OTC eye drops are widely available and considered safe, no product is ever risk-free. There are several reasons why overusing eye drops might lead to damage or complications.

Preservative reaction

Many eye drops contain preservatives that help prevent bacteria from growing in the solution. For some people, these preservatives can cause eye irritation.

Additionally, when used too often, preservative eye drops can actually cause dry eye in some people who weren’t experiencing it before. And over time, severe DED can lead to serious eye complications such as ulceration and scarring, which may result in vision loss.

Rebound redness

The type of eye drops you use matters.

For example, if you’re experiencing redness as a primary symptom in dry eye, it can be tempting to reach for a redness-relieving product, known as decongestant eye drops. They work by constricting blood vessels in your eye, which temporarily makes redness less noticeable.

But when these products wear off, redness can be worse than it was initially. This phenomenon is called rebound redness. It happens when blood vessels in your eyes dilate to larger than their original size.

Additionally, decongestant eye drops are not recommended if you have certain eye conditions, such as glaucoma. The constricting effect of the drops can increase the pressure inside your eye, which may contribute to glaucoma progression.

Undiagnosed underlying cause

When your eyes feel dry and irritated, you might skip the eye doctor and go right for eye drops.

DED is just one condition that causes eye irritation. Other conditions, such as ocular neuropathic pain, can cause severe dry eye symptoms that often require more advanced therapies in addition to basic eye lubrication.

In this situation, eye drop overuse might not cause complications, but you might not see any symptom improvement either. This might lead you to use your eye drops more often, which in turn might cause other issues.

Different types and brands of eye drops have specific usage recommendations.

In general, artificial tear solutions that contain preservatives are not recommended for use more than 4 times per day. If you need to use eye drops more often, you can look for preservative-free formulas, many of which can be used as needed.

Decongestant eye drops can often be applied to your eyes 4–6 times per day but are not recommended for use for more than a few days at a time.

Other types of OTC eye drops, such as antihistamine drops used to manage allergy symptoms, may vary significantly in recommended usage depending on their active ingredients.

Always read the label and follow any instructions from your eye doctor to help ensure that you don’t over- or underuse eye drops.

Everyday use of eye drops under the direction of an eye doctor is often necessary and beneficial for dry eye management.

But using eye drops every day when you don’t have any eye issues, or continuing to use them for longer than your doctor has recommended, may lead to negative side effects.

When your eyes are irritated, red, or burning from dry eye, using OTC eye drops such as artificial tears can provide relief.

But using eye drops too often — especially if they contain preservatives or have other functions, such as redness relief — may cause more eye issues.

Always read product labels and follow your eye doctor’s instructions to help ensure that you don’t overuse your eye drops.