When your eyes are feeling dry or irritated, you’re understandably going to want to find some fast relief. But if you head out to the store, you’ll quickly find that there are tons of different types of eye drops to choose from. And grabbing the wrong kind could end up doing more harm than good.

To understand how eye drops can help your red or dry eyes, let’s break it down by looking at the various types of eye drops out there (we’ll discuss artificial tears, allergy eye drops, and anti-redness drops) and which common eye problems they address.

Keep in mind that you should always follow your eye doctor’s recommendations when using eye drops and consult them with any questions.

Artificial Tears or Lubricating Eye Drops

As you probably guessed by their name, artificial tears are eye drops that mimic your body’s natural tears. They’re also called lubricating eye drops because their purpose is to moisten, or lubricate, eyes.

When to Use Artificial Tears or Lubricating Eye Drops

Artificial tears are moisturizing eye drops that are primarily meant to keep the surface of your eyes from feeling dry.

Some dry eye drops come in the form of ointments or gels, which are thicker—these thicker eye drops can be more effective in treating severe dry eyes because they last longer. Many people choose to use gels or ointments at bedtime since they stay in the eye longer, and their thickness can temporarily blur vision.

How Do Artificial Tears Help Dry Eyes?

When you blink, you’re refreshing a layer of moisture on the surface of your eyes that protects them from dust and debris. Lubricating eye drops aid dry eyes when your body is not doing this properly by itself. Artificial tears use lubricants and elements found in natural tears to moisten the surface of the eye. 

Allergy Eye Drops

The name’s a giveaway—allergy drops are eye drops that are made for eyes reacting to common allergens like dust, dander, mold, and pollen. 

When to Use Allergy Drops

If you’re an allergy sufferer, you’re probably all too familiar with the red, itchy, watery, or dry eyes that accompany your allergens. When you know your eye irritation is being caused by allergies, that’s when you reach for the allergy drops.

Just be sure to check with your doctor to make sure what you’re experiencing is allergy-related and that you’re choosing eye drops that are right for you, or you might not get the relief you’re looking for.

How Do Eye Drops Help Allergy-Related Irritation?

When your body reacts to allergens, it releases histamines that cause your allergy symptoms. Allergy eye drops have antihistamines in them to stop those annoying eye symptoms. Some allergy drops work by actually preventing your body from making the histamines altogether. Sometimes, allergy eye drops will need to be used for two weeks before you experience their full benefit.

Anti-redness Drops

Anti-redness drops are—you guessed it—eye drops for red eyes. These drops are for making the whites of eyes that are red or “bloodshot” appear clear again.

When to Use Anti-redness Drops

Red or “bloodshot” eyes that aren’t caused by allergies usually come from some kind of temporary irritation—like overtiredness, extreme eye strain, or being in a smoky room for a long time.

Anti-redness drops should be used cautiously, and it’s definitely best to check with your doctor—it’s possible that eye redness could be caused by other underlying issues that need your eye doctor’s attention. They really should be considered for temporary, one-off uses only, as they can actually make red eyes worse if overused or not used properly. 

How Do Eye Drops Help Red Eyes?

Anti-redness eye drops are made with decongestants. When your eyes appear red or bloodshot, it’s because irritation causes the blood vessels in your eyes to swell. Decongestants relieve this swelling temporarily, making the redness go away too. It’s because of these decongestants that anti-redness drops should be used sparingly.

What Are Eye Drops Made Of?

Different types and brands of eye drops will contain different ingredients. Without getting overly scientific on you, we’ll give you the basics. As mentioned before, artificial tears are lubricating eye drops—they contain lubricants. In addition, they may contain electrolytes for healing and sometimes guar gum (to give gels and ointments thicker consistency). 

Allergy drops contain antihistamines to combat allergy-induced eye symptoms, and anti-redness drops use decongestants to relieve swelling of the eyes’ blood vessels.

Eye Drops with Preservatives vs. No Preservatives

It’s common for eye drops to contain preservatives—these are chemicals that prevent bacteria growth after the bottle has been opened. Eye drops with preservatives are often less costly, but they can sometimes make dry eyes worse, especially if the dryness is more severe. Preservative-free drops contain fewer chemicals, so doctors usually suggest these if you’re going to use the eye drops more frequently.

Are Eye Drops Good for You?

Eye drops can be quite effective for relieving dryness and irritation, and preservative-free artificial tears are considered the safest eye drops for dry eyes. With that said, it’s important to be mindful of eye drops’ expiration date and always use them as directed, whether they are prescription or over-the-counter. And you should always consult your doctor for advice if you’re planning on using them frequently. 

Anti-redness drops should be used with caution. Because of the decongestants used in anti-redness drops, your eyes can actually become dependent on them if overused. When this happens, red eyes might get even worse when you stop using them—something known as a “rebound effect.”

How Often Can You Use Eye Drops?

Preservative-free lubricating eye drops are generally considered best for more frequent use, as long as you are using them as directed. Optometrists and ophthalmologists typically say that eye drops with preservatives shouldn’t be used more than four times per day. As for allergy drops and anti-redness drops—these should only be used as directed by your eye doctor.

Are Eye Drops Safe for Contacts?

Not all eye drops can be used with contacts. There are, however, some eye drops that are made specifically for use with contacts—and they will clearly say on their packaging that they’re safe for contact lenses. Some (not all) of these drops are called rewetting drops. (Rewetting drops aren’t the same as contact solution—you shouldn’t put your solution directly in your eye.)

If you want to use other drops while wearing contact lenses due to dry or red eyes, it’s best to check with your doctor first. Drops that are made to address those issues are meant to heal in addition to wetting the eye, and the additives that help them do that can be troublesome for your lenses, cloud your vision, or even make your eye symptoms worse.

Typically, eye doctors will recommend applying eye drops without contacts on and then waiting 10 to 15 minutes before putting them back in.

When in Doubt About Eye Drops, Talk It Out

Still not sure what type of eye drops to use for your red or dry eyes? The best advice when it comes to your eye health is to make an appointment with an eye doctor. If you feel like you need to use eye drops every day, multiple times a day, in order to feel comfortable, then there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

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