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Antibacterial Eye Drops: Uses, Limitations & More

Antibacterial eye drops are used to treat bacterial eye infections, one of the most common eye health complications. 

Bacterial conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is especially common in children, where it can spread between hosts through a combination of poor hygiene and close proximity. 

What Are Antibiotic or Antibacterial Eye Drops?

Antibiotic eye drops, also called antibacterial eye drops, are a form of topical medicine that gets applied to the eye via a dropper. This medication helps to kill bacteria, one of the most common causes of eye infections. 

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What Do Antibacterial Drops Treat?

As implied by their name, antibacterial eye drops treat bacterial eye infections

One of the most common causes of bacterial eye infections is bacterial conjunctivitis, a type of pink eye. Complications as a result of wearing contact lenses improperly can also cause bacterial eye infections.

Symptoms of a Bacterial Eye Infection

Common symptoms of a bacterial eye infection include the following:

  • Eye pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness (which may look pink)
  • Light sensitivity
  • Discharge, usually a yellowish or greenish pus or tears

While many bacterial eye infections can go away on their own, you should see a doctor right away if you experience severe symptoms. It is important to see a medical professional if you believe you have any kind of eye infection, as they can worsen over time. 

Even if you have already seen a medical professional, call them again if your symptoms get worse or don’t improve. Eye infections are fairly common, and they are usually very treatable. However, severe complications are still possible and can cause permanent damage to the eye.

Signs You Need Antibacterial Eye Drops

It is difficult for someone without medical training to know when antibacterial eye drops are appropriate. These drops can only treat eye infections caused by bacteria. Viruses, fungi, and allergens can cause similar eye health symptoms that antibacterial eye drops cannot address.

You should only use medicated eye drops if they are prescribed by your doctor. These drops are different than artificial tears, which are an over-the-counter treatment for dry eye that are safe when used correctly. 

Always finish a course of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor, even if you feel better. If you think you don’t need the antibiotics anymore but have some left over, talk with your doctor before stopping them.

Sometimes small amounts of the bacteria that were causing your symptoms can survive the early days of treatment. If enough survive and then treatment suddenly stops, they may cause symptoms to slowly flare up again as they multiply.

Limitations of Antibiotics

Antibiotic medications are some of the most misunderstood drugs by the public. Many people think of this medication as treating symptoms, reducing their eye redness and itchiness until the symptoms suddenly stop. 

In reality, the process is more complicated. The symptoms of an eye infection are caused by a source, which can vary. 

Antibacterial eye drops can help fight the infection if the source of the infection is bacteria. Otherwise, the eye drops will not help. 

The good news is that other types of medicated eye drops can usually help fight these different kinds of infections. Your doctor can help you determine the type of infection that is causing your symptoms.

Side Effects

Antibacterial eye drops can sometimes cause irritation in the eye. This may lead to redness, itchiness, or a burning sensation. 

Mild eye pain can sometimes occur as well. In some cases, you may have a feeling like you have something in your eye. If any of these symptoms seem severe or don’t go away, contact a medical professional.

A small number of people may experience an allergic reaction to antibacterial eye drops. An allergic reaction can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Call 911 if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Tingling
  • Trouble breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness or trouble speaking
  • Severe itching or consistent itching anywhere you didn’t apply the drops

Overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibacterial-resistant germs that are much harder for medical professionals to combat. It is also worth noting not all bacteria are bad for the body, although these “good” bacteria mostly reside in the eye. This is why you should never use antibacterial eye drops unless you are prescribed them.

Antibacterial Eye Drops FAQs

Can you buy antibiotic eye drops over the counter?

Regulations in the United States do not permit the sale of antibiotics over the counter, including antibacterial eye drops. This is for good reason. Many people without medical training don’t understand the use cases for antibiotics.

These medications can only treat bacterial infections. They can actually harm you if used under the wrong circumstances or otherwise taken when not needed.

Can I borrow antibacterial eye drops from a friend?

Because antibacterial eye drops are only available through prescription, and it is illegal to share prescription drugs, you should never borrow antibacterial eye drops from a friend. Beyond the fact it is against the law, it is also important you talk to a doctor if you think you have an eye infection, as you might need a different type of eye drop.

What eye drops are antibacterial?

There are several different kinds of antibacterial eye drops, including the following:

  • Fluoroquinolones
  • Aminoglycosides
  • Polymyxin B combinations

While most patients prefer antibacterial eye drops as an option, it is also possible that you might get prescribed antibacterial eye ointments.


  1. Antibiotic Eye Drops. (March 2022). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  2. Ciprofloxacin Ophthalmic. (February 2018). MedlinePlus.

  3. Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye). (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  4. Topical Antibiotics. (August 2009). Review of Optometry.

  5. Common Eye Infections. (June 2018). Australian Prescriber.

  6. The Antibiotic Resistance Crisis. (April 2015). Pharmacy & Therapeutics.

Last Updated August 9, 2022

Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.

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