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Eye Drops for Dry Eye: Can Eye Drops Make Them Worse?

Do your eyes feel dry, gritty, and irritated? Before you reach for the bottle with eye drops for dry eyes, there are a few things you should know.

Over-the-counter eye drops are easy to find, but their long-term use may come with side effects. Before we get to that, though, let’s look at what goes into dry eye drops.

What Are Dry Eye Drops?

Dry eye drops are artificial tears intended to provide moisture to the eyes and soothe them. Usually packaged in tiny plastic bottles, they contain substances that retain moisture, as well as lubricants and essential minerals.

The tear glands above the eyes secrete a tear film that blinking spreads over the surface of the eyes. This tear film has several layers including lipid, watery, and mucin layers. These layers work together to keep the surface of the eyes lubricated and ward off infections.

Your eyes may become dry if your tear glands don’t produce enough tears. Imbalances in the tear film layers can lead to poor quality tears that may also cause dry eyes. So can looking at screens for extended periods. But in this case, dry eyes are usually the result of a lower-than-normal blink rate.

man gazing steadily at laptop screen

Some dry eye drops also contain preservatives like benzalkonium chloride (BAK). These preservatives extend their shelf life by keeping bacteria away from the bottle once you open it. However, several studies have linked the frequent use of BAK eye drops with damage to the corneal epithelial barrier and other adverse effects.

Some eye drops may also have phosphates that are meant to prevent irritation. In very rare cases, phosphates may cause corneal calcification.

Preservative-free dry eye drops come with a lower risk of side effects. But it’s important to wash your hands before using them and make sure the dropper doesn’t touch your eye to reduce the risk of bacteria growing in the bottle. Similar to other ophthalmic solutions, frequently using eye drops—whether they have preservatives or not—may increase the risk of an eye infection.

Do Eye Drops Work for Dry Eyes?

If you are using eye drops with preservatives or eye drops for red eyes, which shrink blood vessels, they could make dry eyes worse.

Using eye drops with preservatives several times a day may lead to irritation, redness, and other symptoms. Eye drops without preservatives may help with moderate to severe dry eye, which requires their application more often, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

However, even preservative-free eye drops may cause blurriness, redness, and allergic reactions. There is no such thing as the best eye drops for dry eye that work universally for everyone with the condition. To find the best dry eye drops for you, you may have to try out different brands.

closeup of the human eye viewed from the side

It’s not a simple question of choosing the right eye drops, either. Dry eye causes can include pregnancy, allergies, smoky or windy environments, and taking certain medications such as antihistamines or decongestants. Certain diseases may also cause dry eyes, including thyroid disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s disease, and lupus.

Whether you opt for eye drops with or without preservatives, it’s important to remember that they don’t treat the causes of dry eye. They will only provide artificial tears.

To better manage dry eyes, it’s important to see an eye doctor, follow up on recommended treatments, and make any lifestyle and dietary changes that help you address the root problem behind your dry eyes.

So, Is It Bad to Use Eye Drops Everyday?

Eye drops may help provide relief for dry eyes arising from temporary causes such as working at a computer for extended periods. But they are not intended to address the underlying causes of dry eyes.

If your tear glands don’t function properly, or the quality of your tears suffers because of nutritional deficiencies, artificial tears cannot help you cure dry eyes. At best, they can provide some relief. However, this relief may come at the cost of side effects.

Important: Self-treating your dry eyes with over-the-counter eye drops without seeing an eye health specialist is not a good idea.

man covering eyes with hands against black background

The takeaway is that you should use eye drops no more than is necessary and seek to address the causes of dry eye. You also want to choose eye drops carefully as not all eye drops are suitable for treating dry eye symptoms.

The best eye drops for dry eye are specifically formulated to help with this condition. Using eye drops developed for other conditions or for removing redness may only make your symptoms worse.

Safe and Healthy Dry Eye Drops Alternatives

While eye drops may help with dry eyes, there are other ways to manage the condition. Often, dry eyes are a sign of spending too much time in front of screens and not eating healthy enough. It’s a good idea to consider a holistic approach for dry eyes, rather than simply resorting to artificial tears.

  • Apply warm compresses to your eyes. Use a clean cloth and water that is warm but not hot.
  • Massage your eyelids gently. Do not apply pressure on your eyes.
  • Eat the right nutrients for eye health. Vitamins A, C, E, and D, omega-3 fatty acids, and the antioxidants lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene all help support healthy vision. We’ve written about the best superfoods for eye health on our blog.
  • Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water a day. Water is a key component of tears, so staying hydrated helps to manage dry eyes.
  • Use a humidifier. If you have to work or live in a dry environment, the dry air may make your dry eyes worse. A simple desk humidifier could help.
  • Take an eye health supplement. SightC helps support healthy vision in the digital age. Plant-based and with no added sugars or artificial flavors, our full-spectrum vision health supplement packs goji berries, turmeric, and other superfoods into easy-to-take vegetarian capsules.

In the end, managing dry eyes while avoiding long-term side effects becomes easier if you make informed choices about eye drops. While eye drops are necessary if your doctor prescribes them, over-the-counter eye drops may contain substances that could be potentially harmful if you use them often.