Overview

Eye numbing drops are used by medical professionals to block the nerves in your eye from feeling pain or discomfort. These drops are considered a topical anesthetic. They’re used during eye exams and for surgical procedures involving your eyes.

It’s important to understand the distinction between eye numbing drops (used for surgical procedures and eye exams) and other types of eye drops.

Saline drops, artificial tears, and anti-allergy or anti-histamine drops are available over-the-counter to soothe and hydrate your eyes. Antibiotic eye drops are available by prescription to treat eye injuries, like corneal abrasions.

Numbing eye drops don’t have soothing, hydrating, anti-allergy, or antibiotic properties. They’re an anesthetic medication for your eye. When administered in small doses, these drops are considered safe. However, there are some risks of side effects if they’re overused.

Types of eye numbing drops

There are two main types of eye drops used in eye exams and surgical procedures. Both are available only by prescription.

Tetracaine

Tetracaine drops (AltaCaine, Tetcaine) block the nerve endings in your eye from signaling pain to your brain. Tetracaine has been found to cause cell death in the cells of your cornea if it’s overused.

Proparacaine

Proparacaine drops (Alcaine, Ocu-Caine) block the nerve endings in your eye from feeling pain. These drops are considered a topical anesthetic. Some people who are sensitive to other local anesthetics find they’re able to use proparacaine without issue. But in rare cases, proparacaine can cause a serious allergic reaction.

What they’re used for

Eye numbing drops are used by doctors for several reasons.

Corneal abrasion

A corneal abrasion is a scratch in the clear tissue that covers your eye. Most corneal abrasions heal in a day or two. Sometimes, the scratch can become infected and may require antibiotics to heal.

Your doctor will typically use a “staining” technique to look for the abrasion. They may first apply numbing eye drops to make it easier to look for the injury.

Eye exam or surgical procedure

Your eye doctor may use numbing eye drops prior to a standard eye exam. If your doctor needs to touch the surface of your eye or eyelid, the drops keep you from flinching.

Numbing eye drops may also be used prior or after a laser eyesight correction surgery, or as part of surgery to remove cataracts.

Side effects of eye numbing drops

Eye numbing drops can make it less uncomfortable to have a doctor look at your eyes. But they can also have some unwanted side effects, including:

  • blurred vision
  • throbbing pain or stinging in your eye
  • tearing and redness
  • light sensitivity

Keep in mind that when eye numbing drops are applied, some of the active ingredient is absorbed by your mucous membranes. Your nasal and sinus cavities can be affected by eye numbing drops that slide from your eye and down into your sinuses.

In most cases, this isn’t a cause for concern. But if you’re using numbing eye drops often, this could damage your eyes and your sinus passages. This is known as systemic absorption. You should only be concerned about it if you’re getting frequent eye exams. Or if you’ve been using topical eye numbing drops without a doctor’s supervision.

If you’re pregnant or nursing, tell your doctor before getting eye numbing drops. Tetracaine and proparacaine are not approved for use during pregnancy and may cause negative side effects.

Application and precautions

A doctor or nurse may administer eye numbing drops before a routine exam, or in preparation of a surgical procedure. The eye drops are placed directly on your eye. You may be asked to wash your hands and hold your eyelid open while the drops are being administered.

After your doctor uses eye numbing drops during an exam or procedure, be extra careful to protect your eyes and avoid rubbing them. Don’t add other eye drops to your eyes until your doctor says you can. Avoid getting dust in your eyes.

Be aware that your eyes may be extra sensitive to light for a few hours after using numbing eye drops. Bring protective sunglasses to wear home after your appointment to keep irritants out of your eyes and minimize discomfort.

Can I buy eye numbing drops over the counter?

Eye numbing drops are not available over the counter. These drops should only be applied under the supervision of a medical professional to avoid serious side effects and, in some cases, chemical dependency.

The takeaway

Eye numbing drops can be used to avoid discomfort and pain during eye exams and medical procedures. But it’s important to understand that numbing eye drops come with risks and side effects.

Express any concerns you have about numbing eye drops to an optometrist or ophthalmologist during your appointment.