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Antibiotic Eye Drops: Types, Uses, and Side Effects

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What are antibiotic eye drops?

Antibiotic eye drops are liquid drops that contain medication to be applied directly to the surface of your eyes, usually in small amounts. Eye doctors prescribe antibacterial drops, which usually have one or more types of antibiotics, to treat various bacterial eye infections.

Antibiotics kill the infection-causing bacteria in your eye. Eye drops often contain saline to match the salinity of your eye.

Uses for Antibiotic Eye Drops, What They Treat, When They Are Necessary

Eye doctors prescribe antibiotic drops to treat a variety of eye infections. The formulas have prophylactic properties and help prevent infections, especially after eye surgery.

Not all eye infections respond to antibiotic drops, including ones caused by viruses or fungi. But the most common infections that antibiotic eye drops fight are:

  • Bacterial conjunctivitis. Also known as “pink eye,” it is the most prevalent eye infection. It is the infection or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin layer of tissue covering the whites of your eyes and the insides of your eyelids. Bacterial conjunctivitis commonly affects children.
  • Infectious endophthalmitis. An infection of the tissue or fluid inside your eye that requires immediate medical attention. It occurs when your eye’s protective surface is compromised, and bacteria get inside the eye.
  • Styes. An infection of the eyelids, often in an eyelash follicle or oil glands on the eyelid. If you touch your eye with unwashed hands, the bacteria can cause styes.
  • Bacterial corneal infection (keratitis). An infection of the cornea.
  • Gonococcal conjunctivitis. An infection of the conjunctiva caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It is uncommon and mostly affects sexually active young adults and neonates.
  • Blepharitis. Inflammation of the eyelids caused by bacterial infection, allergies or clogged oil glands.
  • Cellulitis. This is an infection that can affect the skin around the eyes.

Antibiotic eye drops are necessary to treat bacterial infections, although some bacterial infections heal better without antibiotics. If an eye infection poses a risk of adversely affecting your vision, doctors will recommend antibiotics and other treatment options.

Doctors prescribe drops when you are at a higher risk of developing an eye infection. This is the case if you have undergone eye surgery.

man using eyedropper on left eye

Signs You May Need Antibiotic Eye Drops: Bacterial Infection

A bacterial eye infection can occur in different parts of your eye, including your conjunctiva, eyelid or cornea. The way an infection shows up largely depends on the parts of your eye that are affected.

The infection may affect one or both eyes. The most common signs and symptoms of infections that need antibiotic eye drops are:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Pain, irritation, and discomfort
  • Discharge
  • The feeling of something being in your eye
  • Burning sensation in your eyes
  • Prolonged itching
  • Vision problems include blurry vision and sensitivity to bright lights
  • Prolonged tearing

Types of Antibiotic Eye Drops

The different types of antibiotic eye drops include:

  • Chloramphenicol
  • Erythromycin
  • Azithromycin
  • Ciprofloxacin
  • Neomycin
  • Moxifloxacin
  • Tobramycin
  • Bacitracin
  • Gentamycin
  • Polymyxin B
  • Gatifloxacin
  • Besifloxacin
  • Levofloxacin

The different types of antibiotics have varying mechanisms of action. One formulation can combine two or more antibiotics depending on the eye infection being treated.

OTC Eye Drop Uses

You cannot obtain antibiotic eye drops over the counter. They require a doctor’s prescription.

However, you can use some over-the-counter medications to treat symptoms of various eye infections, including chalazion and styes.

These medications are available without your doctor’s prescription and come in drops, ointment, and oral forms. Over-the-counter eye drops are used to treat or alleviate some of the symptoms of eye infection. They do not treat the underlying infection.

Side Effects of Antibiotic Eye Drops

Adverse effects of antibiotic eye drops can be frequent, occasional, or rare. Mild side effects include itchy eyes, red eyes, inflamed eyes, contact dermatitis, and skin rash.

Among the infrequent adverse effects are blurred vision, eye pain, eye irritation, headache, and iris inflammation.

Rare complications include light sensitivity, fungal eye infection, corneal ulcers, corneal deterioration, fluid accumulation, optic nerve injury, and vision changes.

When to See a Doctor

If you experience any of the aforementioned signs and symptoms of an eye infection or suspect you have an eye infection, it is advisable to see your eye doctor. This is more so if the infection is accompanied by fever, pain or excessive eye discharge. Some eye infections are serious and, if left untreated, can lead to serious vision problems.

Your doctor will determine if you require antibiotic eye drops or other forms of treatment. Some eye infections such as blepharitis and styes respond to proper home care. Nonetheless, if the symptoms of these infections fail to improve, you should see an eye doctor.


What are the best antibiotic eye drops?

According to the Review of Optometry, the best medications to treat bacterial eye infections include bacitracin, polymyxin B, neomycin, and tobramycin.

Can I get OTC antibiotic eye drops?

Infections of the eyes or surrounding skin require a visit to an eye care professional. A physician prescribed antibiotics or other effective and safe products. As such, antibiotic eye drops are generally not available over the counter. There are OTC eye drops for treating other minor eye conditions and symptoms.

What antibiotic is used for eye infections?

The most-used antibiotics for eye infections include erythromycin, polymyxin B, azithromycin bacitracin, neomycin, and chloramphenicol.


  1. Antibiotic Eye Drops. (April 2021). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  2. Common eye infections. (June 2018). NPS MedicineWise.
  3. Be Antibiotics Aware: Smart Use, Best Care. (November 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  4. Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye). (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  5. A European Perspective on Topical Ophthalmic Antibiotics: Current and Evolving Options. (October 2011). Ophthalmology and Eye Diseases.
  6. Antibiotics at the time of cataract surgery to prevent bacterial infection of the eye. (February 2017). Cochrane Library.
  7. Systemic side effects of eye drops: a pharmacokinetic perspective. (December 2016). Clinical Ophthalmology.
  8. Topical Antibiotics. (August 2019). Review of Optometry.
  9. Nonprescription Products for Minor Eye Conditions. (December 2011). U.S Pharmacist.
  10. Chloramphenicol. (December 2018). National Health Service.
  11. Ciprofloxacin ophthalmic. (December 2017). The University of Michigan Health.

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