How to find the best eye drops for your symptoms
Which eye drops are best for you?
Eye drops can relieve the symptoms of most eye problems, whether you have dry eyes, pink eye (conjunctivitis), red eyes or itchiness. But with so many options available, the choices can be overwhelming.
Deciding which eye drops are best for you depends on what kind of symptoms you're experiencing.
Eye drops may be able to relieve the following eye symptoms:
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Non-prescription vs. prescription eye drops
Eye drops and ointments can be broken down into two categories: non-prescription eye drops and prescription eye drops.
You might see "prescription" abbreviated as "Rx." Non-prescription eye drops can also be called over-the-counter or "OTC" eye drops.
Non-prescription drops work well in many cases, and they usually cost less than their prescription counterparts. Doctors may choose to prescribe prescription eye drops for a more complex condition requiring a specific treatment that isn't available over the counter.
OTC eye drops may be available without a prescription, but it's always good practice to ask an eye doctor for help. Doctors are specially trained to help patients figure out the best form of treatment.
Eye drops for dryness
Lubricating eye drops, also known as artificial tears, can provide relief for short-term dry eyes when they're caused by computer eye strain, being outdoors in windy and sunny conditions, tiredness, or other temporary problems.
Most OTC lubricating eye drops add elements to the surface of your eye that are already in your natural tears. This makes your eyes feel more moist and comfortable.
It's best to avoid decongestant eye drops for dry eyes. Decongestants can make your dry eyes look less red, but they can worsen dryness in the long run.
If your dry eye symptoms are more severe, you may need to use a lubricating gel or ointment instead of regular eye drops. Gels and ointments can cause blurry vision for a while after you put them in your eyes, so most people use them right before they go to sleep.
If OTC eye drops or ointments don't do the job, ask your eye doctor about prescription eye drops or additional treatments like punctal plugs.
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Eye drops for redness
While decongestant eye drops are good at getting rid of redness, be mindful that they can mask a potentially serious underlying problem. It's always best consult your eye doctor to identify any underlying causes of your red eyes.
And be careful not to use decongestant eye drops too much. They can cause dryness, irritation, dilated pupils and other adverse effects if they're overused.
Your eyes can also develop a tolerance to the drops' whitening effect. Even greater redness can occur when the effect wears off, forcing you to use them more and more. This is known as rebound hyperemia.
Instead, you may want to consider OTC lubricating eye drops when red eyes are caused by:
Tiredness and lack of sleep
Dryness or general irritation
Eye drops for itchiness and allergies
Antihistamine eye drops are specially formulated to treat the itching caused by allergies. Allergy eye drops reduce histamines, natural chemicals released by the body in response to an allergen.
OTC antihistamine eye drops can help reduce allergy-related eye symptoms such as:
Some decongestant eye drops have antihistamines in them, too. These will be labeled as treatments for itching due to allergy, but decongestant eye drops aren't usually recommended for long-term use, much like redness-relieving drops.
If itching is severe and doesn't improve with OTC treatments, see an eye doctor.
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Eye drops for soreness, swelling or discharge
Before you consider using eye drops for soreness, you'll need to determine the underlying cause.
Eyes usually become sore because they're dry, strained, tired or just plain overworked. Regardless, if you develop sore eyes, see an eye doctor right away to rule out a serious infection.
Lubricating eye drops may provide relief for eye irritation caused by:
Visual stresses like crying
Swelling from inflammation and allergies
Eye discharge related to allergies
Yellow or greenish eye discharge is usually caused by an infection and may require prescription antibiotic eye drops.
Eye drops for infections
Different types of eye drops may be required for each type of pink eye:
Viral conjunctivitis is very contagious. Some kinds of viral pink eye go away on their own, but severe types can cause red, watery, sore eyes and clear or whitish eye discharge. OTC lubricating eye drops can help your eyes feel better.
Bacterial conjunctivitis usually makes your eyes very red and sore with a thick, sticky eye discharge. Bacterial eye infections are often treated with prescription eye drops from a doctor.
Allergic conjunctivitis is the most common cause of eye redness and usually causes itchy, swollen eyelids and watery, bloodshot eyes. Allergic pink eye is not contagious. Over-the-counter lubricating and antihistamine eye drops can provide relief in many cases.
If you're using eye drops for an eye infection, never touch the end of the bottle to your eye — you could contaminate the bottle and spread the infection.
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Eye drops for contact lenses
If you plan to use regular OTC lubricating eye drops while you're wearing contacts, check with your eye care practitioner to see if your contact lenses are compatible with the drops.
Unlike rewetting drops, many eye drops — OTC and prescription — are not intended for contact lens wearers, and you may need to remove your lenses before applying the drops to your eyes.
Page published in February 2019
Page updated in July 2021