People seeking relief from tired, red eyes don't have to look far. A lot of over-the-counter (OTC) eyewashes claim they can help. And they're not humble about it.
Visine promises to "get the red out in 60 seconds" while Eye-Mo has a daily care formula to "clean and refresh your eyes." Clear Eyes says it "soothes and cleanses red eyes of strain and everyday irritation." So popular are these products that in the United States alone, more than 15 million bottles of eye drops are sold yearly.
But soaring sales are not proof of efficacy. While some OTC eyewashes may relieve redness and soothe the eyes for a few hours, their usefulness is questionable.
The truth is your eyes don't have to be cleaned with eyewashes. Simple irritation caused by smog, strong light, sea bathing or bathing in chlorinated water is often self-limiting and natural tears do a better job of eliminating these problems.
"Normal eyes don't need cleansing, soothing or refreshing by solutions of vasoactive and antiseptic chemicals. Simple irritation disappears of its own accord in about a day. No synthetic solution can match natural tears for washing away small bits of dust, dirt or other irritating matter. And human tears contain an enzyme that has mild antibacterial properties at least as effective as those of commercial eye solutions," according to the editors of "The Medicine Show" published by Consumers Union (CU).
Decongestant eye drops containing naphazoline, tetrahydrozoline or phenylephrine relieve redness and discomfort by constricting the superficial blood vessels of the eyes. But what consumers don't know is that the more you use these products, the more sensitive and redder your eyes will be.
Dr. Charles N.S. Soparkar and his colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said that frequent use of OTC eye drops may harm the eyes. In the journal "Archives of Ophthalmology", they reported that 70 people who had been using non-prescription eyewashes daily for three years developed acute and chronic forms of conjunctivitis marked by eye inflammation, discomfort, and discharge. In some, these symptoms persisted up to 24 weeks after the subjects stopped using the eye drops.
"There's no question that eye drops can make red eyes feel better and look brighter. Their shortcoming is that they counteract the symptoms without solving the problem. When the effect of the drops wears off after three to four hours, there may be a rebound effect: blood vessels dilate even more, and the eyes may redden and feel even itchier," revealed Candice Bushnell in "Health" magazine.
"The rebound effect shouldn't be a problem if vasoconstricting drops are used once or twice a day for a day or two and not again for a week. But apply them more often than that, and you will end up relying on eye drops every three to four hours to keep your eyes clear. The situation isn't difficult to remedy. You just have to go 'cold turkey' and live with red eyes for a day or two, and gradually the problem will resolve itself," Bushnell added.
Another bad effect of eyewashes is that they may mask symptoms of other diseases like glaucoma that is sometimes characterized by a vague discomfort - the kind of feeling you could mistake for tired eyes. In this case, eye drops won't solve the problem. You have to see an ophthalmologist for help.
Other possible causes of red eyes are bacterial or viral infection, errors of refraction like astigmatism or nearsightedness, hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), diabetes, and measles. In these cases, the use of eye drops is not advised and may delay the user from seeking expert medical help.
For tired but otherwise healthy eyes, CU's medical consultants said one or two drops of cold tap water placed in the lower lid with a clean eye dropper is sufficient. Iced wet compresses applied for 15 minutes will also help. These home remedies are less expensive than commercial eye drops and are less likely to give you trouble later.
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By Janet Martin