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 Encyclopedia - Eye Drops

Are nonprescription eye drops effective?
What do prescription eye drops treat?
Why are eye drops used during an eye examination?
What is the procedure for administering eye drops?

Eye drops are the most prevalent means of administering medications for the treatment of eye disorders, or as preparation for various diagnostic procedures during eye examinations. Because most of the medicine remains in the eyes, there is less risk of side effects than with oral medicines.

As with any medication, eye drops can affect your overall health as well as the health of your eyes. When eye drops are prescribed, make sure you know the name of the medicine and know how often you are to take the medicine. Call your physician if you experience any uncomfortable or unusual symptoms when using the medication.

Most people are exposed to several types of eye drops over their lifetime. The most common are nonprescription drops such as artificial tears and decongestant drops that "get the red out." Prescription eye drops may include antibiotics to treat or prevent bacterial eye infections, anti-inflammatories to reduce inflammation, anti-allergy medications, and medicines for the treatment of glaucoma. Anti-allergy eye drops are the ones used during an examination and administered as a local anesthetic prior to a medical procedure.

Are nonprescription eye drops effective?

Many nonprescription eye drops are available over the counter. Although nonprescription drops are safe and can generally be used as often as needed, extended use of any medicine should be approved by your doctor. The most commonly used drops are artificial tear solutions, which soothe and lubricate irritated or dry eyes. Some people may be allergic to the preservatives used in these drops and should look for "preservative-free" drops.

Another widely used over-the-counter drop is a decongestant. Although these drops do not improve the health of your eyes, they do contain medicine to constrict blood vessels, thereby whitening the eye. These eye drops should not be used for prolonged periods of time because they can actually cause the eye to become redder from excessive dilation of the blood vessels.

What do prescription eye drops treat?

Some of the more common prescription eye drops are anti-allergy medications, steroids (corticosteroids), antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and drops to treat glaucoma.

Anti-allergy medications are prescribed to decrease the effects of histamine, a chemical released by the body during an allergic reaction that results in itchy, watery, red eyes. These anti-allergy eyedrops work by preventing the release of histamines, or by blocking their effect after release. Livostin, Patanol, Cromolyn, and Alomide are widely used anti-allergy prescription drugs.

Anti-inflammatories are used to reduce eye inflammation and fall generally into the categories of corticosteroids or nonsteroidals. Corticosteroids are powerful products that are effective in treating a wide variety of eye problems such as iritis or inflammation of the conjunctiva or cornea (See Anatomy of the Eye). They are similar to a natural substance produced by the adrenal gland and can be safely used in the eye, but always under the direction of an eye doctor. If used improperly, corticosteroids can cause glaucoma or cataracts and may also increase the risk of eye infections. Ibuprofen, which is the equivalent of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, is useful in reducing inflammation and eye pain, but is not as strong as corticosteroids. A common corticosteroid is prednisolone, and a common nonsteroidal eyedrop is diclofenac.

Antibiotics are normally used to treat bacterial eye infections. Certain antibiotics may work better than others in treating, preventing, and eliminating the problem, as there is no one single medication effective against all types of infection. Common antibiotics used in treating eye problems are sulfacetamide, erythromycin, gentamicin, ofloxacin, tobramycin, and ciprofloxacin.

Antiviral eye drops are used primarily as a treatment of herpes virus eye infections and are often used in conjunction with other oral medications. The most commonly used antiviral drop is triflurthymidine.

Glaucoma eye drops are all designed to decrease excess pressure in the eye. The drops work by either decreasing the amount of fluid produced by the eye or by increasing the drainage of fluid from the eye. Because glaucoma can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve, resulting in serious and irreversible vision loss, it is extremely important for a patient to follow the doctor's directions regarding use of the drops.

Glaucoma eye drops can produce a wide variety of side effects, but most patients prefer to tolerate these side effects rather than risk permanent damage to their vision. Side effects can include headaches, breathing difficulties, blurry vision, irregular heartbeat, depression, sexual dysfunction, high blood pressure, and eye irritation.

Why are eye drops used during an eye examination?

Dilating drops, used frequently in an eye examination, cause the pupil of the eye to open wider, allowing the doctor to examine more easily the structure of the inside of the eye. After a dilated eye examination, vision can remain blurry and eyes can stay sensitive to light for several hours. Eye doctors often provide a pair of disposable sunglasses for you to wear after such an exam.

Anesthetic eye drops are painkillers that are used to numb the eye during certain procedures that may otherwise be uncomfortable. These eye drops should be used only by a trained eye care professional because misuse could result in damage to the cornea.

What is the procedure for administering eye drops?

Many people are very sensitive about anything touching their eyes, including eye drops. Even with children, however, administering eye drops should be relatively easy, when done properly. Remember when using eye drops, either on yourself or on someone else, to wash your hands thoroughly with an antibacterial soap. Never touch the dropper opening with your hand.

Here is a simple way to administer drops:

  1. Looking upward, pull the lower eyelid down.
  2. Place the dropper as close as possible to the inside bottom of the lid without touching the eye, and apply the prescribed amount of drops.
  3. Close the eye for a minute or two, but do not shut it too tightly.
  4. Remove excess fluid with a tissue.
  5. Wait at least 5 minutes before administering another prescription if more than one kind of eye drop is prescribed.

When giving children eye drops or if you are very sensitive, use the following procedure:

  1. Have the person lie down with head straight and eyes closed.
  2. Place the prescribed amount of drops into the inside corner of the eye, near the nose.
  3. Have the person open their eyes slowly, allowing the drops to flow gently into the eyes.
  4. Remove excess fluid with a tissue.

Depending on the type of drops used and the condition being treated, the drops may sometimes cause a burning sensation. This should last only a few minutes, but if it continues for a longer period of time, contact your doctor.

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