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What Are the Risks of Using Expired Eye Drops?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The risks of using expired eye drops include ineffective treatment of vision or other eye problems, inflammation and irritation of the eyes and, in the worst cases, infection. The specific effects depend on what the drops are intended to treat and how much time has passed since their printed expiration date. Most patients report little to no side effects from using drops that have past their prime, but a lot of this depends on whether the drops have ever been opened. Partially used bottles that have expired are often more dangerous and have more risks than those that are still sealed in their original packaging, though it should be noted that ophthalmologists do not ever recommend using eye medications that have passed their expiration date.

Ineffectiveness

There are two main types of eye drops: prescription and over-the-counter. Both versions will expire at some point, and their expiration dates are usually set at least in part according to how long the chemical suspension is expected to be effective. Manufacturers typically print an expiration date on the labeling or packaging of the bottles that can be a year or more in the future, but in most cases the shelf life is about four weeks from the moment they are opened. Oxygen exposure can cause the drops to become unstable, and over time can lead to evaporation. The liquid may look about the same a few months in, but may actually contain different proportions of active and inactive ingredients than intended.

This risk is particularly serious for prescription products that are formulated to treat conditions like glaucoma, chronic dry eyes, or allergies. Using old eye drops might not treat these conditions at all, or might treat them only partially. Partial treatment can make ailments last longer and sometimes actually get worse over time.

Eye Irritation

Irritation and inflammation can also happen with drops that are unstable or weakened. This is most common with prescription drops, but is also possible with even basic saline solutions depending on how long they have been expired. Once the composition of the medication changes, it is no longer ideal for the surface of the eyeball. Higher levels of chemicals, salts, or other additives can cause redness and swelling.

Bacterial Infection

The eyes are some of the moistest parts of the outside of the body, and as such they can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Patients are usually instructed slowly squirt the drops onto the eyeball, usually just beneath the lid. The dropper is never meant to touch the surface of the eye or its fluids, but contact is nonetheless made in many cases. It can be very difficult to squeeze droplets into one’s own eye without accidentally touching the dropper to the surrounding fluid.

Once contact has been made fluids are able to commingle on the dropper, and may even drop back into the main solution chamber. This doesn’t usually present problems right away — which makes use before the expiration date okay in most cases — but over time, the mixture can begin breeding bacteria and contaminating the solution.

Reintroducing a contaminated dropper to the sensitive eye area can result in serious consequences. Bacterial infections in the eye are often accompanied by swelling, inflammation, and itching. Medical attention is almost always required, too, since the nature of most infections is to spread; left untreated, things can penetrate deep into the eyeball, possibly impacting vision, or can spread across the face.

Disposal Tips

Healthcare professionals generally recommend that people get rid of expired eye drops and replace them with new products. There is little sense introducing eyes to liquid that is ineffective at best and contaminated at worst. Expired eye medicines, particularly those that were bought over the counter, usually can be thrown away in the household trash; these solutions are typically mild, and are unlikely to pose risks to the environment or to other people's health.

Depending on the contents of the medication, however, simply throwing away eye drops can be dangerous. Many pharmacies will accept expired medications for disposal, and most will least advise patients about safe practices for getting rid of specific compounds.

Home Remedies For Eye Irritation

If your eye drops are expired but your eyes are severely bothering you, there are some home remedies you can try that can relieve the irritation and soothe your eyes. It’s best to buy fresh eye drops, but these home remedies can be quite effective in a pinch. 

Cold Compress

If your eyes are puffy and swollen, you can remedy this irritation by applying a cold compress over your eye. You can use a rag dampened with cold water, a non-chemical ice pack, or a frozen spoon. 

Shut your eye and gently place the compress over your eye for a few minutes. You can do this periodically to help relieve any discomfort. Plus, doing this can improve circulation around your eyes and reduce the appearance of dark circles!

Warm Compress

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with dry eyes caused by clogged oils and mucus in your eyes, you can use a warm compress to loosen these substances and help hydrate your eyes. 

The best way to do this is to soak a clean cloth in warm water and gently press it over your eye for about a minute. After, you can rinse your eyes out with warm water. 

Castor Oil

Castor oil is a common ingredient in store-bought eye drops. If your eyes are dry, itchy, or red, a drop or two of castor oil in each eye can help restore them and eliminate discomfort. 

Just make sure you use pure castor oil and a clean eye dropper. And you can apply castor oil several times a day to keep your eyes hydrated. 

Salt Water

Salt water, which is essentially a saline solution, is also a common treatment for dry and irritated eyes. The salt can wash away irritants and debris caught in your eye, while the water can rehydrate. 

Add a spoonful of salt to a cup of water and then boil it on the stove until the salt completely dissolves. Wait for it to cool, then rinse your eyes thoroughly with the solution. 

Rosewater

Rosewater is a wonderful product as it has soothing and healing properties. You should always use pure rosewater, and you can wash your eyes out a few times a day or apply rosewater using an eyedropper. 

This remedy is especially effective against dry eyes that are causing you immense discomfort. 

Potatoes

Potatoes? Yes, potatoes. This starchy vegetable is a natural astringent that can reduce inflammation and redness. 

Slice a potato into thin slices and then place them in the fridge or freezer until they’re cold. Place them over your eyes for ten to fifteen minutes once they’re cold, and do this a few times a day. Make sure to use raw potatoes. 

Cucumbers

Everyone has seen the cliche spa scenes in movies where people have cucumbers over their eyes. And many believe this does nothing. But in reality, cucumbers can help rehydrate, soothe, and reduce swelling in and around your eyes. 

Cut a fresh cucumber into thin slices and lay them over your eyes for ten to twenty minutes to reduce puffiness and dryness. 

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera seems to be the home remedy for everything, but it also always seems to work! The hydrating and moisturizing properties of aloe can reduce inflammation, soothe itchiness, and eliminate dryness. 

Mix a bit of aloe vera juice with water and then use it as eye drops or as a wash to rinse your eyes a few times a day. 

Green Tea

Green tea may be one of the most effective and popular home remedies for irritated eyes. You can make a cup of green tea and then use it as an eye wash once it cools down, plus you can save the rest for a healthy caffeinated drink. 

Or, and this treatment is more popular and possibly more effective, place the damp, cooled tea bags directly over your eyes for a few minutes. 

Blink More

Whenever you blink, your tear ducts create tears to coat your eyeball and hydrate them. So if you stare at a computer screen all day, this can dry out your eyes. 

Take a break every twenty minutes and close your eyes for twenty seconds to give your tear ducts a chance to rehydrate your eyes and flush out any debris. You can do this in tandem with one of the other home remedies.

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Discussion Comments

By anon997835 — On Mar 06, 2017

I have just been given Maxidex for laser treatment today. The expiry date on the box is 05/2018 and there is a label wrapped around bottle with the same date, but underneath that the date is 05/2013. This has been double checked just in case I wasn't seeing correctly. It's four years out of date!

By Pippinwhite — On Feb 26, 2014

Eye infections are nothing to mess around with, and while using eye drops that are a month out of date might be all right, you're still risking your vision, in my opinion. The last thing you want to do is to introduce bacteria into your eye. That's just not smart.

Sometimes, very nasty eye infections can result from something simple like expired or contaminated eye drops and not only can they be difficult to treat, they can cause blindness, and it doesn't take much, or take very long for it to happen.

Check the labels on your eye drops. It's an easy thing to do and it could save your eyesight.

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