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Eye ointments can treat many common eye conditions, such as conjunctivitis, dry eye syndrome, and styes.

These ointments aren’t the same as eye drops. Drops are liquid, while ointments are semisolid and greasy, like petroleum jelly.

This article will take a closer look at some of the most common types of eye ointments, along with the eye infections and conditions they typically treat.

Infections can leave your eyes feeling sore, red, itchy, or swollen.

Some common eye infections include:

  • Pink eye. Also known as conjunctivitis, pink eye is a common and highly contagious eye infection.
  • Keratitis. This common condition affects the cornea. It’s most common among people who wear contact lenses.
  • Blepharitis. This infection affects the eyelid and is caused by blocked oil glands in the eyelash follicles.
  • Uveitis. Uveitis affects the middle layer of the eye, known as the uvea. An infection doesn’t always cause it.

The infections listed above have many possible causes. For instance, viruses, bacteria, and allergies can cause pink eye, as well as exposure to chemicals, such as chlorine. Fungi, parasites, and sexually transmitted infections can cause other eye infections.

The cause of the infection is important. Most eye ointments for infections are antibiotics. One exception is acyclovir, an antiviral ointment used to treat eye infections caused by the herpes simplex virus.

Antibiotic eye ointments work by targeting and killing bacteria. As a result, they’re only effective in treating eye infections caused by bacteria.

In the case of pink eye, for example, antibiotic eye ointments are only used to treat bacterial pink eye. They won’t work on viral pink eye, which is more common.

Doctors usually prescribe eye ointments for overnight use. Some of the most common ointments used to treat bacterial eye infections include:

  • Bacitracin. This polypeptide antibiotic treats bacterial eye infections in adults.
  • Erythromycin. A macrolide antibiotic, erythromycin treats eye infections such as conjunctivitis in adults. Newborns may receive this drug to prevent neonatal conjunctivitis.
  • Ciprofloxacin. A quinolone antibiotic used for many bacterial eye infections, ciprofloxacin may be suitable for children older than 2 years.
  • Gentamicin. This aminoglycoside antibiotic treats blepharitis, conjunctivitis, and other bacterial eye infections.
  • Polymyxin B-neomycin-bacitracin (Neosporin). Neosporin is a combination antibiotic that treats conjunctivitis, keratitis, and blepharitis in adults.
  • Polymyxin B-bacitracin (Polysporin). This combination antibiotic is prescribed for most bacterial eye infections.
  • Tobramycin. This aminoglycoside antibiotic is suitable for most bacterial eye infections. It may be used in children older than 2 years.

These drugs generally require a prescription. However, other forms of the same antibiotics may be available over the counter (OTC).

Some OTC ointments, like Neosporin and Polysporin, are only meant to be used on your skin. Don’t use them in your eyes. They’re not the same as the prescription ointments with the same name that are meant for eye infections.

The drug’s packaging should clearly state that it’s for ophthalmic (eye) use. If you’re unsure, ask a pharmacist.

In many cases, eye infections clear on their own. Other eye infection treatments include:

  • eye drops
  • oral antibiotics
  • antihistamines
  • warm or cold compresses
  • sterile saltwater (saline) solution

Keep in mind that ointments aren’t always the first line of treatment for eye infections.

Depending on the type of infection, severity, and your age, your doctor may start with other treatments first.

Styes are red, painful bumps that appear around the edges of eyelids. They tend to feel sore, swollen, or itchy.

Styes develop from blocked sweat glands or hair follicles around the eye. They usually go away on their own, but you can use home remedies to relieve symptoms.

For a more persistent stye, you might need eye drops or a prescription for an antibiotic eye ointment, like those listed above for eye infections.

If that doesn’t work, your doctor might suggest oral antibiotics.

As the name suggests, dry eyes refer to poorly lubricated eyes. This syndrome occurs from a lack of tears, or poor-quality tears.

Other symptoms include:

Eye drops are the most common treatment for dry eyes. OTC gels and ointments are recommended for overnight use. Some of these products include:

These treatments aren’t medicated. They contain lubricants like mineral oil or white petrolatum. Check the ingredient list to make sure they don’t contain preservatives or phosphates, which can be harmful to your eyes.

Dry eyes can also increase your risk for an eye infection. This is because tears, which contain salt, help flush out potentially harmful germs from your eyes.

If you do develop an eye infection, your doctor may recommend an antibiotic, such as pills, eye drops, or one of the ointments listed in the eye infections section above.

If you’re using ointment as well as eye drops, put the eye drops in first. Wait 10 minutes before applying the ointment.

Follow these steps to safely apply eye ointment:

  1. Wash your hands. You’ll need to touch your eye to apply the ointment. Wash your hands thoroughly before getting started. Or, you can use a clean pair of medical gloves.
  2. Warm up the tube. Close your hand around the tube to warm up the ointment inside.
  3. Remove the cap from the tube. Place the cap on a clean surface. Once the tube is open, avoid touching the tip with anything.
  4. Tilt your head back. You may want to stand in front of a mirror so you can see your eye. Make sure your upper lid is raised.
  5. Position the tube. Hold the tube with your dominant hand. The ointment should be very close to your eye, with the tip pointing toward it. Don’t let the tip touch your eye.
  6. Pull down your bottom eyelid. Use your pointer finger to pull your eyelid down without touching the inside of your eye. The red part under your bottom eyelid should form a small pocket for the ointment.
  7. Gently squeeze the tube. Without letting the tip of the tube touch your eye, squeeze a line of ointment into the pocket under your eye. Twist the tube to help the ointment break off from the tip and fall into your lower eyelid.
  8. Close your eyes. Let both eyelids close, and leave them closed for 1 minute. The ointment should melt with your body heat. While your eyes are closed, look up to help the ointment spread to the rest of your eye.
  9. Clean the tip of the tube. Use a clean tissue or baby wipe to prevent the spread of germs.
  10. Wash your hands. After you’ve finished, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

If you’re applying eye ointment to a baby or young child, it’s often easier to have your child lie down. You can wrap your child in a towel or blanket to limit their movement. You’ll need to hold your child’s upper eyelid while repeating the steps above.

It’s important to use antibiotic eye ointments for as long as your healthcare provider has directed. You’ll need to finish the treatment course, even if your symptoms have improved.

Accidents happen. You may get ointment meant for your skin in one of your eyes.

If this happens, flush your eye with water right away. You can do this with any stream of cool water, such as from a faucet or shower. You can also use sterile saline solution. Keep blinking while rinsing your eyes for 15 to 20 minutes.

If you’re concerned about the kind of ointment you got in your eye, contact the National Capital Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222 or use its online triage tool to see whether you require further medical assistance.

Follow up with your doctor if you experience the following eye symptoms:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • discharge
  • pain
  • changes in your vision

Eye ointments can treat many eye conditions, including infections, styes, and dry eyes.

Ointments for eye infections and styes are typically antibiotic, while dry eye ointments are OTC lubricants. Most eye ointments are prescribed for overnight application.

For best results, it’s important to follow the correct procedure when applying eye ointment.

If you accidentally get ointment in your eye that’s meant for your skin, be sure to rinse your eye thoroughly with a steady stream of cool water.

Follow up with your doctor if you have any swelling, pain, changes to your vision, or any other unusual symptoms.