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Artificial Tears (Eye Drops for Dry Eyes)

You may suffer from chronic dry eyes.  You may have allergies that surface once a year for a couple weeks.  You may get dry eyes from working at the computer. No matter what the cause, if you have red, burning or itchy eyes, commercials tell you what you need is eye drops.

Eye drops can be a good solution for some people who need temporary relief, but before beginning with over-the-counter eye drops it is best to consult with your ophthalmologist about which ones might be best for your eyes and which ones may cause more trouble than they're worth.

Components of Eye Drops

Eye drops typically list a few "active ingredients."  These ingredients are the hydrogels or lubricating portion of the eye drop, but are not the only important components.  In addition to the lubricants, the eye drops may contain surfactants designed to help the drops incorporate with your natural tears and stay on your eyes longer. Eye drops may also contain preservatives designed to keep them effective and free of bacteria.

Most of the lubricants found in over the counter eye drops work with similar effectiveness.  Examples are carboxylmethylcellulose, polyethylene glycol, and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose. Eye drops containing oil may be better for people who suffer from evaporative dry eyes, since the oil will not evaporate off the surface of the eye.  Although the lubricants often produce similar results, other components of the eye drops may be important to helping you choose the best possible eye drop for you.

Temporary Relief

Eye drops give temporary relief from dry, red, or irritated eyes.  The relief is temporary because the eye is always trying to flush the liquid off its surface, which leads to a need for frequent re-application of eye drops to achieve longer relief. Some drops are formulated to give longer relief than others. Sometimes, the solution to keeping eye drops on the eyes is to make the solution more viscous, which allows it to resist flushing from the eyes.  The tradeoff is that viscous eye drops create a visible film that can diminish your visual acuity for up to half an hour after application. 

Another technique utilizes surfactants that cause the eye drops to create a clear gel on the surface of the eye. The eye drops Systane utilize hydroxypropyl guar to achieve this effect and have been clinically shown to remain on the eye longer than other eye drops with a comparable viscosity.


Preservatives perform a vital role in eye drops, but one common preservative can also lead to irritation and eye damage.  The preservative benzalkonium (BAK) was the most common preservative used in eye drops, but when used frequently, it sometimes led to eye irritation.  More recent preservatives—such as GenAqua or Purite—tend to be gentler on the eyes. In addition, some people may be allergic or sensitive to any preservatives and should look for an eye drop formulation that is completely free of preservatives.

Decongestant Eye Drops

Decongestant eye drops are designed to decrease redness in the eyes by shrinking the eye's blood vessels. If you suffer from red eyes, first consult an ophthalmologist to determine the cause and the best solution.  For many people, decongestant eye drops work well to correct redness, but it is important that these eye drops be used for a short time only.  Over the long term, they can cause dryness and irritation, and your eyes may become dependent on them.

Before using an over-the-counter eye drop, it is best to talk to your ophthalmologist about potential risks, including complications related to narrow angle glaucoma. It is also best to learn whether your red or dry eyes may be related to a more serious condition, including an eye infection.  Please contact an ophthalmologist in your area today to talk about using eye drops.

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