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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 were for and how much time has passed since their printed expiration date. Most patients report little to no side effects from using them, though it should be carefully noted that ophthalmologists do not ever recommend using eye medications that have passed their expiration date.
There are two main types of eye drops: prescription and over-the-counter. Both versions will expire at some point, and their expiration dates usually are set according to two distinct factors. First, the efficacy and strength of the medication usually is optimized for only a certain length of time. Second, the risk of bacterial growth in the solution becomes exponentially larger the more frequently a product is used. By far the biggest risk of using expired eye drops is 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. Eye drops usually come in small bottles that have attached droppers that patients are meant to position over their eyes and slowly squirt the eye 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 fluid that is on the eyeball.
After this contact has been made, the fluids are able to commingle on the dropper, and sometimes, they even drop back into the main solution chamber. In the short term, there are few problems with this mixing, but over time, the mixed in of eye fluids can begin breeding bacteria and contaminating the solution.
Most eye drops have a printed shelf life of about four weeks or state that they should be used for only about a month after opening. Bacteria can grow within this window, but growth usually is minimal. After this time has passed, however, 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, because the infection’s nature is to spread, not to dissipate.
Diminished eye drop integrity also is a risk of using expired eye drops, particularly for prescription products. Medical eye drops usually are formulated to treat a specific condition — particularly glaucoma, chronic dry eyes, or allergies. Using old eye drops might not treat the underlying condition or might treat it only partially. This can lead to infection or irritation.
Healthcare professionals generally recommend disposing of expired eye drops. 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, because they 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.
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