If you have eyes that are irritated from dry, smoky or windy environments or from fatigue, you may turn to artificial tears. If you need to use them often, consider making an appointment with an eye care provider.
Artificial tear products usually work in one of two ways: they either add to the water (aqueous) part of your tears or to the fatty acid (lipid) part of your tears. Layers of mucus, water and lipids make up your tear film, which is part of your tear system, also known as the lacrimal apparatus or the lacrimal system.
You may use artificial tears to:
You may need to use artificial tears occasionally because you:
If your eyes seem like they’re always dry and irritated, you should contact an eye care provider so they can help you find out what’s going on and what type of treatment you might need.
In the U.S., almost 5 million people age 50 or older have severe dry eye. About 20 million more people have dry eye issues that aren’t considered severe.
Dry eyes happen twice as often in women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) than they do among men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB).
Artificial tear products aren’t all the same. Some of them may work by adding to the aqueous (water) component of tears. Others may work with the oily (lipid) part of tears.
Some artificial tear products have preservatives that allow for longer shelf life. However, a drawback to this type of product is that the preservative can bother your eyes. Regardless, you should discard any open artificial tear product when it’s three to four months old.
It may be better not to use certain kinds of artificial tears with preservatives if you’re wearing contact lenses. There are special products made for contact lens wearers. Check the packaging for information on use with contact lenses.
Preservative-free products often come in single-use containers. They’re small tubes that you should throw out after 24 hours.
Ask your eye care specialist to recommend a type and brand.
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Usually, artificial tears come in bottles or tubes, depending on whether they’re solutions, gels or ointments.
Check with a provider about how often you can use artificial tears and how long you can use them continuously. If you need to use them often, you may need a provider’s help in finding out if you have a more serious condition.
If you use artificial tears that contain preservatives, you should limit their use to four to six times per day. If you need to use the products more often than that, you should use products that don’t contain preservatives.
Artificial tears provide relief for the itching and burning of dry eyes. Some types might help your eye tissues to heal.
Sometimes, artificial tears can help to wash out hair, dust, irritants or other substances that might be in your eye.
Some people may find that artificial tears, especially those that contain preservatives, cause unwanted side effects, including:
Artificial tears usually make your eyes feel better right away.
If you experience any of the following, it’s a good idea to call your provider or make an appointment to see them as soon as you can:
If you have any loss of vision or extreme reaction, especially an allergic reaction as described above, get medical help right away. If the symptoms include trouble breathing, call 911 immediately.
Artificial tears are usually available over the counter (OTC) and provide or keep moisture in your eyes. Eye drops often require a prescription, but some may be available over the counter. They may contain medications like:
You can use some types of artificial tears with contact lenses. You may have seen packages of products called rewetting drops. In general, avoid using any artificial tears that contain preservatives with contact lenses unless you’ve spoken to your provider
Thicker products (gels and ointments) may stick to your contacts, so you should avoid wearing contacts while using gels and ointments.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Like other parts of the body, your eyes have parts that are supposed to work together for best results. It’s possible that your eyes are dry simply because you were outside in the wind or near a smoky campfire. It’s fine to pick up some eye drops to relieve occasional problems. However, if your eyes are dry and irritated on a regular basis, talk to a healthcare provider. They can check for other conditions and can provide direction on what type of artificial tear solution will best suit your needs.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/21/2023.
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