Eye lubricants

Also called tear substitutes or artificial tears

Key points about eye lubricants

  • Eye lubricants are medicines used to relieve dry, irritated eyes.
  • Eye lubricants come as eye drops or ointments. 
  • They are used to keep the eye moist and reduce symptoms of irritated or dry eyes such as burning and itching. They also help to protect the eye from injury and infection. 
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Lubricant eye drops or ointments are used to treat dry and irritated eyes and sometimes to help the eye to heal. Most eye lubricants simply wet or moisturise the eyes, but others can remove excess tear mucus made by the eye. Sometimes, eyes with a dry surface can appear watery, which occurs when dryness is caused by the tear film not clinging to the eye.

Dry eyes is a sore, gritty sensation caused by not enough tears being produced or something affecting the quality of tears to form a protective tear film. It is a common condition caused by many things including wind, sun, heating/air conditioning, reading, computer use, other health conditions and some medications. 
If you have dry eyes, it is best to get it treated. Without treatment, your pain and discomfort will not go away. It may also lead to scarring of your cornea (the transparent layer at the front of the eye) or infection which can lead to more serious complications. Read more about dry eyes. 

Using eye lubricants may not be suitable in some situations

If you have any of the following symptoms, or if you use contact lenses, check with your optometrist or pharmacist before using eye lubricants.

  • Eye pain
  • Very sensitive to light
  • Severe redness in one eye only
  • Difficulty with your vision.

There are many eye lubricants available with various ingredients such as carmellose, dextran, polyvinyl alcohol, glycerin, hypromellose, polyvinyl alcohol, povidone, or macrogol and propylene glycol. For a full list, check the back of the package. The choice of eye lubricant will depend on a few things such as the cause and severity of your symptoms. Eye lubricants comes as eye drops or eye ointment.

Eye drops

Eye drops are more commonly used than eye ointments. Eye drops are formulated to be a certain viscosity (thickness) which affects how long they stay in the eye. Some eye drops are thin (like water) and do not stay in the eye for very long. They are used for mild symptoms and are only used when symptoms occur. Other eye drops are thicker and stay in the eye for longer. These are usually used for moderate to severe symptoms and are used regularly a few times a day.

Eye drops also differ in how long they last once they are opened. Some eye drops contain a preservative. These come in small bottles that can be used for up to a month after opening. Other eye drops do not have a preservative. These come as single doses that can only be used once and must be thrown after use.

In most cases, using eye drops with preservatives are suitable because the multi-dose container is more convenient. But sometimes a preservative-free eye drop is recommended such as:

  • If you have a reaction to the preservative, for example worsening stinging, burning and red eyes after using the eye drops.
  • If you need to use eye drops more than 4 times a day.
  • If you are using other eye drops that already have a preservative.
  • If you use certain types of contact lens.

Preservatives in large quantities, after longterm use (months or years), may damage the delicate cells on the surface of the eye, or cause inflammation to the eye. Read more about how to apply eye drops.

Eye ointment

Eye ointments are thicker than eye drops. They reduce evaporation of tears by coating the cornea on the surface of the eye. They are best used at nightime before bed, as they can cause blurred vision by coating the cornea. Read more about how to apply eye ointment.

  • Don’t share your eye lubricants with anyone else.
  • If you use contact lenses, always check with your optometrist or pharmacist if the eye lubricant you are using is safe to use with your contact lenses.
  • Once you open an eye lubricant, always check the expiry date from the day of opening. Some should be thrown away immediately, or 1 month or 3 months after opening. If you are unsure, ask your pharmacist.

Did you know that you can report a side effect to a medicine to CARM (Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring)? Report a side effect to a product(external link)

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Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist, Healthify He Puna Waiora. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland

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