You have a lot of choices when it comes to eye drops; the drops you use will depend on the symptoms you are experiencing and the severity of your condition. Eyedrops range from simple rewetting drops for contact lens wearers to medicated versions you can only get via a prescription. If you visit the eye doctor, you may encounter drops used specifically for dilating eyes or to eliminate pain during a procedure. Learning more about the different types of drops can help you make the best choices for your eyes and ensure you get the help you need for more serious or significant conditions.

Prescription Eye Drops vs. Over the Counter Drops

You can get eyedrops for a variety of ailments in both over the counter (OTC) and prescription (Rx) versions. In many cases, an over the counter eye drop may be all you need to address a particular concern or condition; other times you may need to see your doctor for a specialty eyedrop or medication. In general, OTC eyedrops are more convenient, since you do not have to go to the doctor’s office first; they are also usually less expensive. Prescription eye drops may be covered by your health insurance plan, and both prescription and OTC drops qualify for HSA plans.

Types of Eye Drops

Drops for Dry Eyes

OTC Drops for Dry Eyes: If your eyes are always dry and irritated, then eyedrops can help. For most people, over the counter lubricating eye drops (also called artificial tears) are enough to soothe dry and irritated eyes. This type of drop is useful if you are experiencing a temporary dryness or irritation due to wind, sunshine, eye strain from reading or using a computer and simple tiredness.

Rx Drops for Dry Eyes: If you have persistent dry eyes and are bothered by this symptom frequently or you have gotten to the point that OTC drops simply don’t help, your eye doctor can prescribe a more powerful drop to help.

Redness

Red eyes can make you look tired, older and ill; combat redness using decongestant eye drops specifically designed to target this condition. These types of drops shrink the tiny blood vessels on the sclera (the white part) of your eye. As they shrink, these vessels become far less prominent and your eyes stop looking red.

Decongestant drops are available over the counter and usually specify their purpose right on the label. It is important to use these sparingly; too much use could actually irritate your eyes. If your eyes are red for more than a temporary reason – swimming in a pool, crying or being around an irritant—you may need to see your doctor. Redness could be a sign of another medical problem; a checkup can not only assure you that you are healthy, but your doctor may also prescribe a stronger medication to combat your red eyes.

In some cases, trying a lubricating drop designed to soothe dry eyes can also eliminate redness by washing away irritants. If you’re worried about using a decongestant eyedrop too often switching to an artificial tears style drop can help.

Eye Drops for Allergies

When your watery, itchy eyes are caused by allergies, you have several options. Taking an oral medication designed to combat your specific allergy may eliminate the itchiness and watering, without using an eye drop at all. If you prefer not to take a medication, then an eyedrop containing an antihistamine can help. These drops reduce the amount of histamine in the tissue of your eye and instantly go to work to combat your discomfort. An eye drop for allergies will specify that it has an antihistamine included and is available over the counter.

Anesthetic Drops

Used to eliminate pain during or after procedures, these drops are available via a prescription only.  Overuse or misuse can lead to an infection or other issues.

Drops for Discharge or Swelling

Eye drops can help soothe irritation and make sore or swollen eyes feel better. Lubricating drops for dry eyes can address these issues as well; a trip to the doctor’s office may be required if you notice a lot of discharge or over the counter drops do not make you feel better. If you are far sighted, near sighted or even us a computer terminal often, then the soreness could actually be strain; your eye doctor can help determine the cause and let you know if OTC drops will help.

Drops for Dilation

If your doctor needs to examine the back of your eye or your retina more closely, you’ll receive eye drops that dilate your eye. This does not hurt; drops are administered in the doctor’s office and temporarily cause your pupil to expand. You’ll be sensitive to light until the effect wears off; these are only used in the doctor’s office.

Infections

Conjunctivitis, or Pink Eye and related conditions are treated with eye drops; the types of drops used will depend on if you have a bacterial or viral infection. OTC drops can alleviate symptoms, but will not help with the underlying cause; an infection means a trip to the eye doctor and a prescription eye drop.

Drops for Contacts

If you wear contacts, they can irritate or dry your eyes; rewetting drops are useful in this situation. Rewetting drops are specifically designed for use with lenses and can’t interfere with your lenses or vision. If you wear lenses, you should not use other types of drops when your contacts are in unless directed by a doctor.

Glaucoma and other Eye Conditions

Drops specifically designed to help glaucoma patients can help maintain a desired eye pressure and ensure the fluid naturally present in the eye stays consistent. This type of drop is available via prescription only.

Understanding what the different types of eyedrops can do and what they are used for can help you make the best choices about your health and ensure you don’t experience uncomfortable or irritating symptoms.