Over-The-Counter (OTC) Medicines

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Over-The-Counter Medicines

Ear Drops in Eyes: A Painful Mistake

Medicines labeled otic are for ears, not eyes. If you accidentally put ear drops into your eyes, you will quickly know that something is very wrong. Your eyes will burn and sting right away, and later you might notice redness, swelling, and blurred vision. In most cases, the injury to the eyes is temporary, but visual changes are always a real possibility if something irritating gets in the eyes.

It would be easy to mistake these ear drops as eye drops when the front of the bottle is facing away.

Unfortunately, putting ear drops into eyes is a fairly common mistake for several reasons: Bottles of ear drops and eye drops can look alike and may be located right next to each other in pharmacies and where you store your medicines. The medical terms used for ears (otic) and eyes (optic) are very similar. Otic and optic (or ophthalmic) are also listed on the outer cartons of some bottles of eye drops and ear drops. Consumers have mistakenly picked up a bottle of otic (ear) drops, believing it was optic (eye) drops. People have also chosen over-the-counter (OTC) otic (ear) drops when they intended to purchase optic (eye) drops. Many ear medicines use an eyedropper (small glass or plastic tube with a rubber bulb at the top that is squeezed to draw liquid medicine into the tube), which can subconsciously lead you to believe the medicine should be placed in the eyes.

Sometimes, eye drops can be safely used as ear drops because there are relatively few medicines for ears. However, ear drops should never be used in the eyes. Eye tissue is much more sensitive than ear tissue. Thus, eye drops are specially made to be gentle and germ-free, yet effective.

In your home, ear drops that are used to clear wax out of the ears are most often confused with eye drops. However, mix-ups between other types of ear drops and eye drops have been reported. We even have a reported case in which ear drops for a pet were accidentally put into the eyes of the pet owner's child.

To avoid mix-ups between eye drops and ear drops, consider the following:

Keep in box. Keep your eye drops and ear drops in their original cartons, as pictures of an eye or ear are often on the boxes but not on the bottles.  

Figure 1. An example of a box of eye drops with a picture of an eye on the carton.  

Separate drops.
Do not store your eye drops and ear drops in the same location. Also keep pet medicines away from human medicines.

Different times. Use your ear drops at a different time than eye drops.

Use saline drops. To reduce the risk of harmful mix-ups, try using water and saline ear drops to remove earwax instead of stronger substances that contain carbamide peroxide (common ingredient to remove ear wax).

Discard leftover drops. Once you have used prescription ear (and eye) drops for as long as the doctor told you, discard leftover drops. Write the date you open any non-prescription drops on the label and throw the bottle away 4 weeks later, as it may contain bacteria by then.

Confirm the medicine before use. Take a “time out” before using eye drops to confirm that the correct bottle of medicine is in your hand. Reading the label out loud helps prevent mistakes.

Flush eyes.
If ear drops are accidentally put in the eyes, flush the eyes with water and seek emergency treatment if improvement is not immediate.