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Are Red Eye Drops Safe? Optometrists Weigh In


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Picture this: It’s a brand new day, and you’ve awoken to bloodshot eyes. That recommended seven to nine hours of sleep you were supposed to get somehow turned into five or six, and now, you’ve got angry peepers to deal with. Naturally, you head over to your medicine cabinet and pop in a couple of red-eye drops. Ta-da! You’re feeling fresh as a daisy! But have you ever stopped to think about whether or not those eye drops are really safe for red eye? FIRST for Women talked to Chicago-based optometrist Dr. Kevin Pfeiffer, OD, of Custom Eyes and New Jersey-based optometrist Dr. Marc Wiener, OD, of Wiener Vision to get the answer. 

What causes red eyes?

Red eyes occur when the tiny blood vessels on the whites of the eyes become irritated, expanding and making eyes appear, well, red. Possible eye irritants include everything from a lack of sleep and common allergies to serious ailments, such as glaucoma and conjunctivitis, aka pink eye

While red eyes can be caused by serious eye conditions that require medical attention, redness-relieving drops are most people’s first line of defense when it comes to dealing with minor or seasonal redness. 

How safe are eye drops for red eyes? 

According to Dr. Pfeiffer, though eye drops may be an effective short-term mean of treatment for red eyes, they may not be the best course of action. “[These drops] definitely get the red out, but they don’t fix the problem,” he shares. “When they wear off, the eye begins to crave them again, causing a vicious cycle. You can develop a tolerance and that can lead to an almost permanent redness.”

Most red-eye drops work through a process called vasoconstriction — or a narrowing of the blood vessels in the eye. To trigger this response, these drops typically use a decongestant, with one of the most common being tetrahydrozoline. But according to Dr. Wiener, the use of this particular decongestant for minor eye irritants is not favored by a number of medical professionals. “Many doctors believe tetrahydrozoline should be available by prescription only to treat specific medical conditions and not general red-eye,” he says. 

There’s one eye drop that works a little bit differently, however, that Pfeiffer and Weiner both recommend if you can’t go without drops: Lumify ($10.98, Amazon). “The best product for cosmetically getting rid of red eyes is Lumify,” says Pfieffer. “It’s long-lasting, it doesn’t have any side-effects, and you won’t become addicted to it.” 

Dr Weiner echoes those sentiments, adding, “It’s the first prescription-based formula for getting the red-out.”

What’s more, it won’t cause that “almost permanent redness” Dr. Pfeiffer was talking about, which is known by those in the medical community as “rebound redness.” 

The secret to these drops lies with its main ingredient, brimonidine — a first-of-its-kind drug that was first approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of glaucoma. Unlike other drops, this solution targets a receptor in the eye’s veins, ceasing the interruption of oxygen flow that other eyes drops cause, meaning your eyes will stay whiter, longer.

Eye Whitening Drops

As for how often you should be using them, Dr. Pfeiffer assures that they’re safe for regular use. “If you’re using a brimonidine-based drop like Lumify, I’d say it’s safe to use every day.” 

However, he’s quick to note that the recommended dosage should be followed, so be sure to not use them more than two times per day.

It’s also important to be aware of how your eyes are responding to these drops — particularly if they’re not. “Anyone who’s using red-eye drops to help with redness but is still not getting relief, it’s probably because they’re masking an underlying condition,” shares Dr. Pfeiffer. “If those drops aren’t working, it means that something else needs to be targeted and they need to go see an eye doctor.”

So, the next time you reach for a redness solution, keep these tips in mind and a bottle of Lumify handy. Your eyes (and your optometrist!) will thank you. 

Where to buy: $10.98, Amazon

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