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The Best Eye Drops for Dry Eye (2021 Edition)

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Rendering of dry eye with inflamed red blood vessels

Nobody likes dry eyes, but over 16 million Americans have been diagnosed with this irritating condition—and the actual number of people who suffer from dry eyes is likely much higher. Eye drops (or artificial tears) represent one of the leading forms of therapy for dry eyes, but with all the different kinds available, how are you supposed to know which drops to choose?

Don’t worry; we’ve been hard at work evaluating different kinds of eye drops so that you can choose the best type for your needs. We’ve helped countless people diagnose eye problems like dry eye syndrome at our practice, so we’re happy to share our knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Read on, and use our recommendations to have informed conversations with your eye doctor about managing dry eyes.

How Eye Drops Can Help with Managing Dry Eyes

Dry eyes occur when your eyes either stop producing the right amount of tears or the tears they do create evaporate too fast. Numerous factors can contribute to dry eyes, but it often stems from a problem with one of two glands that assist with tear production: the lacrimal glands and the meibomian glands.

Lacrimal glands are responsible for producing tears, and meibomian glands create oils that stabilize your tears and prevent them from evaporating too quickly. Problems with either type of gland can leave your eyes without adequate lubrication, causing discomfort and increasing your risk of an eye infection.

So, where do eye drops come into the mix? Simple: they provide lubrication for your eyes when your natural tear film can’t. However, specific prescription eye drops may also contain medications to help stabilize the tear film. These eye drops can be useful for managing dry eyes caused by meibomian gland dysfunction.

Man adding artificial tears to eye with dropper

What Eye Drops Are Best for Dry Eyes in 2021?

We aren’t going to spend this article plugging specific brands, but we do want to explain the differences between specific types of eye drops and their active ingredients. Understanding these nuances will allow you to select the category of eyedrops best suited to reducing the symptoms of your dry eyes.

Over-the-Counter Eye Drops

Most over-the-counter eye drops are intended to provide quick and temporary relief for dry eyes. However, they are typically unable to deal with dry eye syndrome’s more severe symptoms, such as inflammation. Over-the-counter eye drops generally include various humectants—a category of substance that help retain moisture—along with lubricants and electrolytes.

One of the most popular over-the-counter eye drop brands this year is Rohto, which sells numerous eye drops claiming to reduce redness in people with dry eyes. Eye drops that reduce redness generally use naphazoline hydrochloride, a decongestant that can provide minor relief for redness by constricting some blood vessels. 

Anti-Inflammatory Eye Drops

Meibomian gland dysfunction sometimes results from inflammation that presses nearby tissues together, clogging the glands. Eye drops that contain anti-inflammatories, such as cyclosporine, can reduce the swelling in these areas and once more allow oil from these glands to reach the tear film. However, most cyclosporine eye drops require a prescription—so you’ll need to visit an eye doctor before you can obtain them.

Restasis is one of the most popular anti-inflammatory eye drop brands. The FDA has determined that it may help increase tear production in adults suffering from dry eyes.

Eye Drops with Oil

Most eye drops contain lubricant of some kind, but several varieties contain oil specifically intended to replace oil that is missing from your tear film. Eye drops containing castor oil have been shown to increase tear stability in patients with dry eyes, and assist with the management of meibomian gland disease.

Refresh Optive is a popular brand of eye drops, offering several products containing castor oil. Systane Balance is another product that has been shown to improve symptoms for people with dry eyes (using mineral oil).

Trust Your Eye Doctor’s Recommendation

Ultimately, only a qualified eye doctor with detailed knowledge of your case can definitively recommend specific products to help you manage dry eyes. Make sure to arrange regular eye exams with your optometrist or ophthalmologist so that you can give them a clear picture of your eye health, then trust their advice about the best eye drops to use.

Written by Daniel Rowan

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