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Which Over-the-Counter Medications Treat Itchy Eyes?

Nikki Javit, PharmDChristina Aungst, PharmD
Published on April 26, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • Itchy eyes are very common. They’re generally caused by seasonal allergies.

  • Many over-the-counter (OTC) medications are available to treat itchy eyes. They tend to focus on washing allergens out of your eye or relieving symptoms of itchiness and redness. 

  • Saline eye drops, oral antihistamines, decongestant eye drops, and antihistamine eye drops are the main OTC options for itchy eyes.

Young girl with itchy watery eyes on a yellow background. She has headphones around her neck and a face mask on.
Prostock-Studio/iStock via Getty Images

Few things are more irritating than itchy eye symptoms. But if you suffer from itchy eyes, know that millions of people are right there with you. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 30% of people are affected by eye-related allergy symptoms at some point. 

At most pharmacies you visit, you’ll notice that many over-the-counter (OTC) medications are available to help relieve these itchy eye symptoms. But with several products available, how do you decide which one is right for you?

Here, we’ll cover your treatment options for itchy eye symptoms. We’ll also review signs that should prompt you to talk to a medical professional.

What usually causes itchy eyes?

Allergies generally cause itchy eyes. Allergies are your body’s reaction to allergens (substances that trigger allergies) like pollen, pet dander, and mold. 

When allergens make contact with the surface of your eye, mast cells (immune system cells responsible for triggering allergy symptoms) release histamine. Histamine is a natural chemical that your body makes when you have an allergic reaction to something. This histamine release can cause inflammation, which leads to annoying eye-related symptoms.

When this happens, symptoms often include itchy, swollen, or red eyes. Sensitivity to light and burning eyes are also possible.

What are the best over-the-counter (OTC) medications for itchy eyes?

When possible, it’s important to avoid or limit contact with the allergen that’s causing a stir. And as tempting as it may be, you should also avoid rubbing your eyes. Rubbing could release more histamine, causing them to feel more irritated and itchy. 

But, sometimes, medications also come in handy. If you’re dealing with a brief, mild case of itchy eyes, you may find the following OTC products helpful:

1) Saline eye drops

Saline eye drops help relieve itchy eyes for many people. But these eye drops don’t contain an actual medication — they contain sodium chloride. They work by temporarily washing allergens out of your eye. They also help relieve dry, irritated eyes by adding some much-needed moisture. 

Many generic and name-brand saline eye drops are available. It’s important to follow the provided instructions for how to best use your specific saline eye drops. These should be printed on the back of the product’s container. 

2) Oral antihistamines

If you’d rather take a pill, you could also try an OTC antihistamine. Antihistamines are a group of medications used for various allergic conditions. They work by blocking histamine to help relieve itchy eyes. 

But keep in mind that not all antihistamines are the same. Antihistamines are divided into two groups: 

  1. Older (first-generation) antihistamines, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), are one option. But they have side effects, such as dry eye, that may worsen eye allergy symptoms. They can also make you drowsy.

  2. Newer antihistamines — called second- and third-generation antihistamines — typically don’t cause dry eye. They also don’t make you as sleepy as first-generation antihistamines. These include cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), and levocetirizine (Xyzal). 

3) Antihistamine eye drops

Antihistamine medications are also available as eye drops. But like their oral counterparts, there’s more than meets the eye. 

For instance, olopatadine (Pataday) is an antihistamine eye drop that works by blocking histamine to relieve itchy, red eyes.

But eye drops like ketotifen (Alaway, Zaditor) and alcaftadine (Lastacaft) are considered both antihistamines and mast cell stabilizers. Mast cell stabilizers work by stopping additional histamine release in the eye. These eye drops help relieve itchiness while also treating and preventing eye allergies.

No matter the antihistamine eye drop, how often you use your specific antihistamine eye drop depends on which eye drop you choose. Your local pharmacist can tell you more information about how to use these safely and effectively. 

4) Decongestant eye drops

Decongestant eye drops are another option. They can help with itchy eye symptoms by treating redness and dryness. 

One common product is naphazoline/glycerin (Clear Eyes). Naphazoline works by making the blood vessels in your eyes more narrow, which relieves redness. Glycerin isn’t necessarily a decongestant, but it acts as a lubricant to treat dry, burning eyes. 

Other combination products are also available. Products like Naphcon-A, Opcon-A, and Visine-A contain a decongestant and an antihistamine that provide additional relief from itching. 

Keep in mind: It’s not recommended to use a decongestant eye drop for more than 2 to 3 days at a time. Your body may stop responding to these medications, and your eye allergy symptoms can come back after you stop using them. 

Are there any prescription medications that treat itchy eyes?

Yes. In addition to OTC medications, there are many prescription medications that treat itchy eyes. If your OTC medication doesn’t work, you should talk to a healthcare provider. It’s possible that a prescription medication could be a better option for you. 

Here’s a list of commonly used prescription eye drops:

Medication Type Medication Name
Antihistamines Cetirizine (Zerviate)
Mast cell stabilizers Cromolyn sodium
Lodoxamide (Alomide)
Nedocromil (Alocril)
Antihistamine/mast cell stabilizers Azelastine
Bepotastine (Bepreve)
Epinastine (Elestat)
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) Ketorolac (Acular)
Corticosteroids Loteprednol (Lotemax)
Prednisolone (Pred Forte)

Are there any effective natural or home remedies for itchy eyes?

Yes. There are many home remedies that can effectively help reduce allergen exposure. They can also help prevent allergies from happening in the first place.

Indoor allergens

When you’re at home, these allergen-reduction tips can help keep your symptoms in check: 

  • Frequently vacuum with a HEPA filter to reduce the amount of dust in your home

  • Try keeping pet(s) out of your bedroom or on furniture

  • Replace carpeting with dander-free flooring (like hardwoods, tile, linoleum)

  • Use “mite-proof” bedding covers and wash weekly

  • To limit your exposure to mold, keep the humidity in your home between 35% and 50%

Outdoor allergens 

In many cases, it’s impossible to avoid outdoor allergens. But there are still a few steps you can take to control your symptoms: 

  • Stay indoors as much as possible when pollen counts are at their peak (usually during the morning hours or when the day is windy and warm)

  • Keep your windows closed

  • Use window screen filters to help filter out allergens

These aren’t the only options. For instance, you could also try applying a cold compress to your eyes to relieve itching. Your healthcare provider or pharmacist may also recommend homeopathic or alternative remedies that could be worth trying.

When should you see a healthcare provider for itchy eyes?

Itchy eye symptoms don’t usually need medical attention. And many people with mild allergies can control their symptoms by simply avoiding allergens or by using an OTC medication.

However, this isn’t always the case. You should consider seeing a healthcare provider for testing and treatment as soon as possible if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe itching

  • Vision changes, including the appearance of floaters

  • Sudden sensitivity to light

  • Eye pain

  • Any noticeable symptoms if you wear contact lenses

How long can you use OTC eye drops before seeing a healthcare provider?

You can use OTC eye drops for a few days before seeing a healthcare provider. But the exact number of days depends on the product you’re using. For instance, you shouldn’t use a decongestant eye drop for more than 3 days at a time. But some medications can be used for up to 14 days. It all depends on the product.

If your itchy eye symptoms don’t improve after a recommended amount of time — or if they get worse at any point — you should contact your healthcare provider. They’ll need to check that your symptoms are, in fact, due to allergies and not other causes. They can also prescribe or recommend a more effective treatment option, if needed.

The bottom line

If you’re looking for relief from itchy eye symptoms caused by allergies, you have several OTC medicines to choose from. These OTC options are usually sufficient, but prescription medications are another option if you can't find adequate relief. 

If your itchy eyes don't improve after a few days, or you're experiencing symptoms like vision changes, fever, or eye pain, contact your health provider. These could be a sign of something more serious. 

References

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. (n.d.). Eye (ocular) allergy

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. (n.d.). Eye allergy.

View All References (9)

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. (2017). Seasonal allergies.

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2015). Eye allergies (allergic conjunctivitis).

Baab, S., et al. (2021). Allergic conjunctivitis. StatPearls.

DailyMed. (2020). Opcon-A.

DailyMed. (2021). Naphcon A.

DailyMed. (2022). Visine allergy eye relief multi-action.

Dupuis, P., et al. (2020). A contemporary look at allergic conjunctivitis. Allergy, Asthma, & Clinical Immunology.

Macchiarulo, M., et al. (2019). Red, itchy eyes? Could it be allergies? U.S. Pharmacist.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Mast cell.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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