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Over-the-Counter Eye Drops: Potential Risks

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on August 24, 2016Written by Sonia Pearson on August 24, 2016

If you suffer from dry eyes, over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops can provide quick relief. You might use them several times a day to lubricate your eyes. OTC eye drops are especially helpful because they relieve symptoms without the hassle of getting a prescription.

But OTC eye drops come with their own set of risks. Some drops contain chemicals that your eyes should not be exposed to long term. Because of this, you have to be careful to only use a certain amount of drops every day.

Types of OTC eye drops

There are two types of artificial tears: eye drops with preservatives and preservative-free eye drops.

Eye drops that contain preservatives have a longer shelf life. The preservatives are chemicals that prevent bacteria from growing. This allows you to use one bottle of eye drops for a length of time.

However, the preservatives in OTC eye drops cause eye irritation to become worse. Eye specialists typically recommend that you use this type of eye drop no more than four times a day.

Preservative-free eye drops come in multiple one-time use vials. After you apply one dose of the drops, you must throw away the vial. You have to purchase this type of eye drop more frequently since it is not shelf stable. Single-use drops are helpful if you have severe dry eyes and need more than four applications per day.

Risks of OTC eye drops

Many ingredients go into a bottle of eye drops, including preservatives and thickeners. These ingredients may irritate your eyes in the long term. Other risks of eye drops include contamination and loose safety seals.

Preservatives

Preservatives give eye drops a longer shelf life for added convenience. However, these chemicals can irritate the eyes. If you use eye drops with preservatives, you should apply no more than four doses in one day. If your dry eye is severe, you might need more than four doses per day. In this case, you should purchase preservative-free eye drops. Always check the label of your eye drops carefully.

Contamination

The tip of the eye drop bottle can become contaminated if it touches your eye or another surface. You must be very careful with the eye drop bottle. Replace the lid as soon as you finish applying the drops, and be careful not to touch the tip to your eye. Read the instructions and warnings on the label to avoid contamination.

Loose safety seals

The FDA warns against purchasing OTC eye drops with loose seals or rings. Some bottles have loose-fitting parts that have landed in users’ eyes.

Normally, the safety seals should remain attached to the bottle. If they’re loose, they can cause injury. Pay attention the type of bottle you’re purchasing. Try to find one with a firmly attached safety seal or ring.

Side effects

Be aware that artificial tears sometimes have side effects. For example, cloudy vision can occur temporarily just after application. You shouldn’t operate a vehicle or machinery for several minutes after applying eye drops.

You should also be on alert for allergic reactions. Keep in mind that only 5 to 10 percent of drug reactions are allergic. Anaphylactic allergic reactions to medication might include hives, swelling, wheezing, dizziness, or vomiting. If you see any symptoms like this, stop using the product and get medical help immediately.

Takeaway

OTC eye drops are a good option if you have a mild case of dry eyes, as long as you pay attention to the label. Follow these tips for using eye drops safely:

  • If you purchase eye drops with preservatives, don’t exceed four doses per day.
  • If you buy single-use eye drops, throw away the bottle immediately after each use.
  • Keep an eye out for side effects and use good hygiene with your bottle of eye drops.

Talk to your doctor if you experience side effects, or if your eye drops stop helping your symptoms. If you find yourself needing eye drops on a regular basis, it’s important to see your doctor for further evaluation.

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