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Eye Drops: What to Use and When



A wide range of ophthalmic instruments ensure healthy eyes and proper vision, but one of the simplest solutions to eye problems is the eye drop. Although eye drops can relieve all kinds of eye-related issues—pink eye, dry eye, red eye, itchiness—not all drops are created equal. Using the wrong eye drops could actually exacerbate your condition. Here’s a look at the best eye drops for specific eye problems.

Prescription vs. Over-the-Counter

Most eye drops are available over the counter, so they’re cheaper and more convenient. However, if your symptoms worsen or if you’ve endured certain surgical eye procedures involving a photocoagulation laser, you may need prescription eye drops. If symptoms persist, see your eye doctor. You could have an eye infection or a serious disease that could ruin your vision.

Dry Eyes

Dry eye is actually quite common and can be caused by fatigue, eye strain, or being outdoors. For short-term dry eyes, you should purchase lubricating eye drops, or artificial tears, which work by supplementing your natural tears with more of the same elements.

For a long-term dry eye, you’ll need to upgrade to an ointment or gel. Gels and ointments often cause blurry vision when applied. You may want to use them just before you fall asleep. If problems persist, an ophthalmologist can use a confocal microscope to get a closer look at your eyes. From there, he may prescribe stronger drops or additional eye treatments.


Red eyes call for the use of decongestant, or whitening, eye drops. These contain vasoconstrictors, which shrink the blood vessels in the white areas of your eyes to get rid of their redness.

While redness often accompanies dry eye, you should avoid using decongestant eye drops to treat dry eye. Using decongestant drops too often can lead to further dryness, irritation, and dilated pupils. Frequent use can also lead to a natural tolerance to the eye-whitening effects until your eyes eventually get even redder.

Red-eye caused by dryness, lack of sleep, or irritation can be treated with over-the-counter drops. For redness brought on by allergies, lubricating drops can help wash certain allergens (like pollen) out of your eyes.

Allergies and Itchiness

Antihistamine eye drops are formulated to specifically treat itching by reducing histamine, the protein that causes swelling, inflammation, and that itchy feeling. Some decongestant eye drops also contain antihistamines, but these should not be used in the long-term for treating itchiness.

For severe itching that doesn’t improve with the use of over-the-counter drops, see your eye doctor, who will prescribe stronger drops or oral medications.