Updated on 

April 22, 2022

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Antibiotic (Antibacterial) Eye Drops

What Are Antibiotic (Antibacterial) Eye Drops?

Fungi, viruses, and bacteria all cause eye infections. Infections can be very contagious.

Antibiotic eye drops treat bacterial eye infections. They work by killing the bacteria causing the infection.

Antibiotic eye drops need to be prescribed by a doctor. They contain medicine that regular eye drops (artificial tears) don't have.

Common Eye Infections

The most common eye infection is pink eye, also called conjunctivitis. It’s essential to seek medical attention for conjunctivitis because it’s very contagious.

A doctor will determine if you have bacterial conjunctivitis, viral conjunctivitis, or allergic conjunctivitis. This will determine the most appropriate treatment course.

Another common eye infection is a stye. Most styes do not require medical treatment. But some remedies can make them less uncomfortable. For example, your doctor might recommend a topical treatment or artificial tears if your eyes are dry and irritated.

Symptoms of eye infections include:

  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Pain or pressure
  • Discharge
  • Vision problems
  • Eye redness
  • Tearing
  • Drainage
  • Dryness/crustiness

Summary

Antibacterial eye drops are used to treat various kinds of eye infections. They work by killing the bacteria that cause eye infections and stopping them from spreading.

When Are They Necessary?

Antibiotic eye drops are used to treat bacterial eye infections. Other types of medication are used to treat viral, fungal, and allergic infections.

Your doctor may prescribe you antibiotic eye drops if you have:

Bacterial Conjunctivitis

Bacterial conjunctivitis is very contagious. This is why infections like pink eye spread so quickly among young children in schools and daycare. 

Bacterial conjunctivitis

Contact Lens Infections

It’s also important to kill bacteria causing a contact-lens infection. Sleeping in contact lenses is one of the most common causes of bacterial eye infections. 

Styes 

Styes cause inflammation at the edge of the eyelid. They are red and painful. Staphylococcus bacteria cause styes, which occur when bacteria build up in an oil gland near the base of an eyelash.

eye stye

Chalazion 

Chalazion, which are similar to styes, are cysts deep in the eyelid. Inflammation from blocked meibomian glands causes chalazion. This blockage can lead to staphylococcus bacteria entering the gland opening.

Chalazion

Antibiotic treatments only treat bacterial eye infections. They won’t help with viral infections or fungal infections or if you have an allergic reaction. For eye problems in these categories, you’ll need antihistamines or antiviral medications.

Summary

Antibacterial eye drops treat eye infections such as bacterial conjunctivitis, contact lens infections, styes, and chalazion. They do not work against viruses, fungi, or allergic reactions.

Types of Antibiotic Eye Drops

The different types of antibiotic eye drops include:

Prescription Antibacterial Eye Drops

There are different types of antibiotic eye drops, including:

  • Ciprofloxacin
  • Erythromycin
  • Tobramycin
  • Neomycin
  • Bacitracin
  • Polymyxin B
  • Gentamicin

Each of these has different action mechanisms. Not all of them will cure all bacterial eye infections.

For example, topical antibiotics often will not cure a stye. In some cases, two or three may be combined into a single formulation to treat an infection comprehensively. 

Many types of antibiotics can kill streptococcal bacteria. Staphylococcal bacteria can develop a resistance to some antibiotics. In these cases, your doctor must select a stronger antibiotic.

Sometimes a topical or oral antibiotic may be necessary to treat your bacterial eye infection. They may be prescribed in addition to or instead of an antibiotic eye drop.

Topical and oral antibiotics used to treat eye infections include:

  • Doxycycline
  • Trimethoprim
  • Fluoroquinolones
  • Azithromycin
  • Cipro or Ciprofloxacin
  • Neomycin, polymyxin B, and bacitracin combination

Over-The-Counter Eye Drops 

Antibiotic eye drops are not available over-the-counter. A doctor must prescribe them.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are often used to treat symptoms of styes, chalazion, and other infections. They come in eye drop, ointment, or oral forms. They are available without a prescription.

Keep in mind, OTC medications do not cure stye or chalazion. They alleviate the discomfort and allow the problem to heal without interfering with your vision or daily life.

Ibuprofen is an OTC medication that can reduce inflammation and discomfort related to styes and chalazia. 

Ibuprofen can relieve eye pain and inflammation. Ibuprofen does not cure or shorten the lifespan of a stye or a chalazion. Instead, it reduces pain and swelling. It is especially useful for treating chalazion because they tend to be more painful than styes.

In addition to ibuprofen, there are numerous OTC and home treatments for eye infections, including:

Stye Lubricant Eye Ointment

Stye Eye Relief Eye Drops by Similasan

Warm or Cold Compresses

Again, these treatments do not kill bacteria and will not cure the problem. They do, however, make the problem more manageable.

They are considered homeopathic treatments that the FDA has not evaluated for effectiveness.

Side Effects of Antibiotic Eye Drops

Doctors consider antibiotic eye drops safe and effective. But like all medications, there are side effects. The most common side effects associated with antibiotic eye drops include:

  • Rash
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Itching
  • Inflammation
  • Red-eye
  • Momentary blurred vision

Infrequent but more severe side effects include:

  • Irritation
  • Blurred vision
  • Pain
  • Headache
  • Inflammation of the iris

Rare side effects include:

  • Changes in vision
  • Fungal eye infection
  • Eye puncture
  • Ulcer of the cornea
  • Cataracts
  • Deterioration of the cornea
  • Fluid accumulation
  • Central serous chorioretinopathy
  • Pressure
  • Injury to the optic nerve
  • Raised spots on the cornea

Summary

Over-the-counter eye drops do not kill bacteria; they merely relieve the signs and symptoms associated with an eye infection. A bacterial eye infection would need prescription antibacterial eye drops like azithromycin and clarithromycin. These are generally safe when used as prescribed. See your doctor immediately for severe side effects like blurred vision or inflammation of the iris.

Which Antibacterial Eye Drops Are Best For You?

Eye health is essential, and you should take it as seriously as all other medical conditions. Do not ignore an eye infection if it lasts for more than two days.

Speak to your ophthalmologist if you believe you have a bacterial eye infection. They will prescribe antibiotic medication to treat the infection. In most cases, medication will be in the form of eye drops or ointments.

2 Cited Research Articles
  1. “Antibiotic Eye Drops.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 1 Aug. 2019, https://www.aao.org/eye-health/treatments/antibiotic-eye-drops.
  2. “Eye Infections.” Medlineplus.Gov, https://medlineplus.gov/eyeinfections.html.
Melody Huang is an optometrist and freelance health writer. Through her writing, Dr. Huang enjoys educating patients on how to lead healthier and happier lives. She also has an interest in Eastern medicine practices and learning about integrative medicine. When she’s not working, Dr. Huang loves reviewing new skin care products, trying interesting food recipes, or hanging with her adopted cats.
Kelly Brown is a content writer for Vision Center. Her goal is to share important information so people can make the best decisions about their vision health. From choosing the best eye doctor to managing health issues that affect vision, she hopes to share what she learns through informative content.
https://www.visioncenter.org/author/kelly/
Author: Kelly Brown  | UPDATED April 22, 2022
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Medical reviewer: Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.
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Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.
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The information provided on VisionCenter.org should not be used in place of actual information provided by a doctor or a specialist.

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