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What is an ophthalmic solution and who needs it?

person putting ophthalmic solution into eye

"Ophthalmic solution" is a term sometimes used to describe liquid eye drops. These eye drops are used to treat conditions, including eye infections, eye allergies and corneal ulcers. Before using an ophthalmic solution, speak with an eye care professional.

Depending on the severity of the condition, an ophthalmic solution may be prescribed. Your eye doctor may also give you suggestions for over-the-counter products.

What are ophthalmic solutions used for?

Ophthalmic solutions are used to treat conditions such as:

  • Eye infections, including bacterial, viral and allergic conjunctivitis

  • Corneal ulcers

  • Dry eye syndrome

  • Eye discomfort and symptoms, like redness, dryness, itching, swelling or discharge

Types of ophthalmic solutions

Several types of ophthalmic solutions are available. Each treats a specific condition, from soothing irritated eyes to treating bacterial infections.

Ophthalmic solutions are often placed into categories, such as:

  • Antibiotic eye drops

  • Topical antihistamines 

  • Lubricating eye drops (artificial tears)

Within these categories, some commonly prescribed or recommended ophthalmic solutions include:

  • Ciprofloxacin – an antibiotic used to treat corneal ulcers and bacterial conjunctivitis 

  • Ofloxacin – another antibiotic, also used to treat corneal ulcers and bacterial conjunctivitis

  • Tobramycin – an antibiotic used to treat eye infections

  • Lifitegrast (Xiidra) – used to treat dry eye syndrome

  • Pataday eye drops – used to relieve eye allergy symptoms

  • Artificial tears – used to soothe irritated, red or dry eyes, and to relieve symptoms of viral conjunctivitis

The best ophthalmic solution to use depends on the condition for which it is prescribed. For example, an eye doctor may recommend regular artificial tears for mild eye discomfort. They might suggest or prescribe a stronger medicated eye drop for a more serious condition, such as dry eye syndrome.

SEE RELATED: Which eye drops are best for you?

Ophthalmic solutions for eye infections

Conjunctivitis is a common eye infection. It occurs in several forms (bacterial, viral and allergic) and does not have a one-size-fits-all ophthalmic solution. 

Bacterial conjunctivitis can be treated with antibiotic solutions. Viral conjunctivitis, on the other hand, will not respond to this type of medication, as antibiotics do not kill viruses. 

Instead, someone with viral conjunctivitis may find relief from symptoms with the help of artificial tears.

As for allergic conjunctivitis, some mild symptoms can be treated with artificial tears. More serious cases may require antihistamine eye drops.

READ MORE: What kind of eye drops are used for pink eye?

How to use ophthalmic solutions

It’s important to use ophthalmic solutions correctly to ensure your treatment is successful. The following are some step-by-step tips for applying eye drops:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly before using eye drops.

  2. Remove contact lenses if you are wearing them, unless you are using eye drops to remoisten the eyes during contact wear. You may also leave them in if approved for use with contacts.

  3. Inspect the tip of the dropper for any damages and avoid touching the tip.

  4. Lie down or tilt your head back, and with your eyes wide open, find a point of focus on the ceiling.

  5. Place a finger below your lower eyelid and gently pull down to create a pocket between your lid and eyeball.

  6. Use your other hand to hold the medicine bottle with the dropper directed toward the affected eye. You can place that hand on your forehead if you need help keeping it steady.

  7. Hold the bottle close to your eye, but be careful not to touch the tip to its surface. 

  8. Gently squeeze the prescribed or recommended amount of medication into your eye.

  9. Close your eyes and tilt your head forward. Avoid blinking or opening your eyes for a few seconds to give the drops time to settle in your eye.

Always follow the instructions given on the packaging, as well as any given to you by your doctor. If eye drops are applied incorrectly, it can affect the treatment and take a longer time to heal.

READ MORE: How to put in eye drops 

Contact lens solution

While it is not technically a medicated eye drop, contact solution is critical to caring for contact lenses. Contact solution is used to keep lenses moist, sterile and ready-to-use for the lens wearer when they are not being worn. 

There are two main types of contact lens solutions: multipurpose contact lens solutions and hydrogen peroxide-based lens care systems. Multipurpose solutions tend to be more popular, as they are easier to use. The solution you choose will depend on your needs and contact lens type.

Some contact solutions specifically cater to sensitive or dry eyes. Check with an eye doctor before choosing a solution. They can help you determine the most appropriate type and brand. 

If you experience irritation while wearing contact lenses, your doctor may also suggest a specially formulated type of artificial tears to relieve your symptoms.

SEE RELATED: Which contact solution is best? 

Other ophthalmic treatments

There are also treatments such as ophthalmic ointment and ophthalmic emulsion that may be used to treat eye conditions. In some cases, a combination of these may be recommended. 

  • Ophthalmic ointment is an oily, semi-solid topical treatment for infections and other conditions.

  • An ophthalmic emulsion (such as cyclosporine – Restasis) is an eye drop that combines oil and water. This helps to keep the medication on the surface of the eye for a longer period of time. 

An eye doctor may also recommend the use of cool or warm compresses or oral medications, depending on the condition.

Potential side effects

Like many eye medications, ophthalmic solutions can have some unfavorable side effects. This can include:

If you experience these or any other side effects, stop using the solution and contact your eye doctor as soon as possible. If you have any other questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to seek medical help.

Ofloxacin ophthalmic. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. February 2016.

Ciprofloxacin ophthalmic. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. February 2018.

Lifitegrast ophthalmic. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. September 2016.

Cyclosporine ophthalmic. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. October 2018. 

Tobramycin ophthalmic. MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine. August 2017.

Topical antibiotics. Review of Optometry. August 2009.

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