Over-the-Counter Eye Drops for Allergies

Your Guide to Safe Use of OTC Allergy Eye Drops

Itchy Eyes

Eye allergies are caused by allergens in the air that come into contact with the eye and trigger an immune response. People can experience the symptoms of eye allergies episodically, seasonally, or all year-round. These generally include itching, redness, and a watery discharge in both eyes, but may also include a burning sensation, puffiness, and/or a sensitivity to light.

If you have eye allergies, you may wonder whether you can treat them with over-the-counter eye drops.

The answer is generally yes, as certain drops can provide excellent short-term relief.

That said, continuous or long-term use of eye drops is not an ideal solution, as most are only recommended for safe use for a short period of time. Besides, identifying your specific allergen trigger (or triggers) is the best way to ultimately get to the bottom of and manage your eye allergies.

Short-Term Over-the-Counter Eye Drops

Most over-the-counter allergy eye drops contain topical decongestants, like those found in Visine (naphazoline), and these should only be used for a short period of time. In fact, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, decongestants for the eye should not be used for more than one week.

This recommendation is the result of the fact that when topical decongestants are used long term, you may be at risk for developing a medical condition called conjunctivitis medicamentosa.

Symptoms of this condition may include an increase in eye redness and irritation, with additional dependence on the eye drop for relief.

A Long-Term Over-the-Counter Eye Drop

However, there is an over-the-counter eye drop that may be used for a long period of time without running the risk of developing conjunctivitis medicamentosa.

Zaditor/Alaway (ketotifen) is now available over-the-counter in the United States for the treatment of eye allergies. This medication is a combination antihistamine and mast cell stabilizer and does not contain a decongestant. Zaditor/Alaway is similar to prescription eye drops like Patanol or Pataday (olopatadine). 

While Zaditor and Alaway can be good over-the-counter options, it's best to talk with your doctor first before starting any new medication. It is generally reserved for people who have frequent episodes of eye allergies and may require at least two weeks of use before its effectiveness can be properly assessed. 

Other Tips for Coping With Eye Allergies

While medication is certainly one way to manage your eye allergies, behavioral measures are equally if not more important. Here are some tips on how to best manage your eye allergies. 

  • Avoid rubbing your eyes, as this can worsen your symptoms, creating a vicious cycle of itching and discomfort.
  • Apply a cool compress over your eyes, as this can reduce swelling.
  • Apply cold artificial tears in your eyes throughout the day, as this will help remove allergens that come into contact with your eyes.
  • Avoid contact lenses and eye makeup.
  • For people with seasonal eye allergies, stay inside more during times when allergens are particularly bothersome and close windows in your home, workplace, and car.

If you have year-round allergies, it is best to see a doctor who specializes in allergies called an allergist. This way you can identify your specific allergens and avoid them, or engage in activities to minimize their exposure (for example, using mite-proof bedding if you have an allergy to dust mites)

While it is sensible to use an over-the-counter eye drop for eye allergies, be sure to only use it for the appropriate duration of time.

In addition, if your eye symptoms are severe or do not improve with an over-the-counter therapy, you should see an ophthalmologist (a doctor who specializes in eye conditions) to ensure a proper diagnosis and formulate a treatment plan. 


American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. (2014). Eye Allergy. 

Bielory L. Allergic and Immunologic Disorders of the Eye. Part II: Ocular Allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2000; 106:1019-32.

Hamrah P, Dana R. Allergic conjunctivitis: Management. In: UpToDate, Trobe J (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA. 

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