woman putting in eyedrops

Is It Safe to Use Eye Drops to Treat Dry or Irritated Eyes?

March 4, 2024

From pollen to dry heat to staring at computer screens all day, it's no wonder our eyes struggle to stay hydrated and healthy. Some of us can find quick relief from itchy, red, and dry eyes using over-the-counter eyedrops.

What Kind of Eye Drops Do I Need?

There are different formulations available, such as preservative-free, allergy relief, and those designed for contact lens wearers, so it is important to use the correct type of eye drops for your specific needs, including the following:

  • Artificial tears: They help to treat dry eyes and moisturize, soothe, and wash away debris or irritants that may be causing discomfort. They can be used as often as needed. However, if they are being used more than every few hours, preservative-free drops and an evaluation by an eye care provider are recommended.
  • Antihistamine: Available over-the-counter or by prescription, they are used to treat allergies and relieve symptoms such as itching, redness, and swelling caused by hay fever or other allergies by blocking histamines, which are chemicals that cause allergic reactions.
  • Decongestant: Used to treat red eyes, these drops constrict the blood vessels in the eyes, reducing redness and swelling. However, decongestant eye drops should be used for a maximum of a few days, as they can result in worsening rebound redness.
  • Steroids: Available by prescription only, they treat inflammation on the surface and inside the eyes, known as uveitis or iritis. They exert their anti-inflammatory effects through various cell signaling mechanisms and must be used under the supervision of an ophthalmologist, as side effects may include the development of glaucoma and cataracts.
  • Antibiotics: Available by prescription only, they treat bacterial infections in the eyes, such as pink eye, and kill the bacteria that cause infections. Symptoms of an eye infection include irritated or red eyes, worsening pain in or around the eyes, light sensitivity, sudden blurry vision, or unusually watery eyes or discharge. Often, eye infections are viral and do not require medicated eye drops. Bacterial infections that require prescription antibiotic eyedrops should be evaluated and monitored by an ophthalmologist or medical doctor.

“Redness, irritation, and eye pain can be caused by more serious medical conditions, such as infection or inflammation inside the eyes, and needs to be examined and treated seriously,” says Lisa Park, MD, an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

How to Use Eye Drops

When using eye drops, it is essential to follow the instructions carefully. First, ensure your hands are clean and dry before handling the eye drop bottle, and avoid touching the tip of the dropper to your eye or any other surface. If you wear contact lenses, remove them before using eye drops and wait at least 10 minutes before putting them back in.

Then, tilt your head back and gently pull down your lower eyelid to create a small pocket. Hold the bottle upside down and close the dropper tip to your eye without touching it. Squeeze the bottle gently to release one or two drops into the pocket formed by your lower eyelid. Blink a few times to help spread the drops evenly. Repeat the process for the other eye if you need to use eye drops in both eyes.

While eye drops are generally safe, using them as directed and avoiding potential risks is essential. Some individuals may experience temporary stinging or blurry vision after applying eye drops, but these side effects usually subside quickly.

It is also essential to adhere to the recommended dosage and frequency of use. Overusing vasoconstrictor eye drops, for example, can lead to dependency, where the eyes rely on the drops, and rebound redness can occur once they are discontinued.

“Most importantly, the underlying cause for redness and irritation should be determined so that the appropriate eye drop treatment can be recommended. Serious causes of these symptoms include corneal ulcers, which commonly occur in contact lens wearers, and herpes keratitis, which requires anti-viral treatment. If redness and eye irritation symptoms persist, an examination by an ophthalmologist is advised,” recommends Dr. Park.

Were My Eye Drops Recalled?

Certain brands of eye drops have been recalled recently due to safety concerns. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identified more than 20 eye drops sold at major stores, including CVS, Rite Aid, Target, and Walmart, because of unsanitary conditions at the manufacturing plant. The FDA posted a complete list of recalled products and lot numbers; consumers can return them.

Bacteria and fungi can grow in the eye drops, or defects in production can compromise the safety of the eye drops, making them unsafe for use. However, most over-the-counter eye drops are considered safe for short-term use as long as the instructions provided are followed diligently.

To ensure that your eye drops are safe to use, there are a few things you can do, including:

  • Check for Contamination: Before using eye drops, inspect the packaging for any signs of damage, leaks, or tampering.
  • Avoid sharing eye drops: Eye drops are meant for individual use and should not be shared. Sharing eye drops can increase the risk of spreading infections or introducing contaminants.
  • Store properly: Proper storage is essential to maintain the integrity of eye drops. Follow the recommended storage instructions provided by the manufacturer, such as storing them at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

If you frequently experience dryness, redness, or eye irritation, using eye drops may provide the relief you need. Remember to follow the proper technique when applying eye drops and choose the right kind for your needs. Your eyes are precious, so take the necessary steps to keep them healthy and happy. Remember, safety should always be a top priority when it comes to your eyes.


Lisa Park, MD, an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.