Putting ear drops in your eye is a common mistake that can cause irritation and discomfort. But it usually doesn’t result in serious eye damage. If you get ear drops in your eyes, rinse your eyes with room temperature water for 15 to 20 minutes and blink often. Several precautions can help you prevent mixing up ear drops and eye drops. This includes separating where you’re storing your drops and when you’re using them. Eye drops and ear drops often come in similar-looking bottles. So, it can be easy to mix them up. This means you might accidentally put ear drops in your eye, or eye drops in your ear. In fact, it’s such a common error that even healthcare providers in hospitals have made this mistake. It’s usually not a problem to put eye drops in your ear. But getting ear drops in your eyes can cause irritation and pain. Fortunately, getting ear drops in your eyes is usually not serious. And temporary discomfort is the only symptom if treated properly.
What could happen to my eyes if I put ear drops in them?
If you put ear drops in your eye, you’ll quickly know something is wrong. Burning and stinging occur immediately. And after a few minutes, you may notice redness, puffy eyes, and/or blurred vision. Most often, these symptoms are temporary. And the good news is that this mistake isn’t likely to cause serious damage. Eye tissue is much more sensitive than the ears. So, medicated eye drops are specially designed to reduce burning, stinging, and irritation that can happen when substances are placed in the eyes. This involves adjusting the pH (acidity) and tonicity (concentration of salt) of the liquid. However, medicated ear drops don’t always have these characteristics. This means they may be more irritating to the eyes. It’s sometimes recommended to use eye drops in the ears due to limited types of ear medication. But you should always check with your healthcare provider before doing this.
Common examples of ear drops
Ear drops are available as both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription products. And they can be used for several conditions. These can include ear infections, ear wax removal, and swimmer’s ear. Some also contains ingredients that help with swelling. Some examples of ear drops are:
  • Carbamide peroxide (Debrox) to help remove ear wax (OTC)
  • Ofloxacin (Floxin) to treat ear infections (prescription only)
  • Hydrocortisone/acetic acid (Acetasol HC) to treat ear infections with swelling (prescription only)
  • Acetic acid to treat swimmer’s ear (prescription only)
Common examples of eye drops
Similar to ear drops, eye drops are available both OTC and with a prescription. The eyes tend to be more complex and affected by more conditions than the ears. So, there are more eye drop medications available. Eye drops are commonly used to treat allergies, glaucoma (elevated eye pressure), and eye infections. Some also help lubricate dry eyes. Eye drops are also used by eye specialists to dilate (widen) the pupils for eye examinations. Some examples of eye drops are:
  • Artificial tears solution to treat dry eyes (OTC)
  • Olopatadine (Pataday) to treat allergies (OTC or prescription)
  • Ciprofloxacin (Ciloxan) to treat eye infections (prescription)
  • Latanoprost (Xalatan) to treat glaucoma (prescription)
  • Tropicamide (Mydriacyl) to dilate the pupils (prescription)
What should I do if I put ear drops into my eyes?
If you get ear drops in your eyes, you should rinse the eyes immediately with room temperature water. Do this for at least 15 to 20 minutes and blink often. For adults and older children, getting in the shower to rinse out the eyes may be the easiest way to do this. For smaller children, Poison Control Centers recommend wrapping them in a towel and pouring water from a faucet or pitcher on the bridge of the nose (not directly in the eyes). Let the water rinse through the eyes and off the sides of the face.
After thoroughly rinsing the eyes, call our office if irritation or discomfort persists. How to avoid mixing up ear drops and eye drops. Even though the containers can look similar, there are a few things you can do to lower the chances that you’ll mix up eye drops and ear drops:
  • Keep the drops in their original boxes. Medicated drops for the eyes or ears will often have a picture of an eye or an ear on the outside of the box. This is to remind you where the drops are to be used. This image isn’t usually printed on the actual bottle.
  • Store medicated drops in separate locations. If you have ear drops and eye drops that you use, keep them in different locations rather than right next to each other. This way, you’ll have less of a chance of grabbing the wrong bottle. Medicated drops should also be stored in a different location than non-medical drop bottles, such as Superglue.
  • Separate administration timing of your medicated drops. For example, you may have an eye drop that should be taken at night. If you begin using ear drops, you might use them in the morning or afternoon. Separating administration times could even be as simple as using one set of drops before dinner and the other set after dinner — anything that sets a clear time barrier.
  • Pause to confirm the medication name before administering drops. It can be helpful to read the name of the medication out loud as you pick up the bottle before your dose. That way, you force your brain to actively think about which bottle of drops you’re using. This can prevent pulling a dropper bottle off the shelf and administering drops without paying close attention. You’re more likely to catch yourself before giving the wrong drops if you do this.
  • Pay attention to the cap color of your medicated drops. Prescription eye drops have color-coordinated caps to designate what type of medication they contain. However, it’s still possible for ear drops and eye drops to have the same cap color. And OTC eye drops tend to have white caps. So, you’ll need to double-check your bottles before using this strategy.
  • Discard leftover drops. When you’re finished with a bottle of eye drops or ear drops, make sure to throw the bottle away. This will ensure you won’t accidentally use the wrong bottle. You should also do this because bacteria can begin to contaminate the medication.
  • In addition to the suggestions above, saline drops are appropriate for both the eyes and the ears. You can use them for earwax removal and to remove foreign objects or irritants from your eyes. Saline drops would be a potential alternative to stronger ear medications like carbamide peroxide (Debrox). Using saline drops could help lessen discomfort and risk of harm if a mix-up does occur.
  • However, to avoid contamination, you shouldn’t intentionally use the same saline drop bottle for both eyes and ears.
The bottom line
Accidentally placing ear drops in your eyes is a common mistake. But it usually only results in temporary discomfort. The discomfort occurs because eye tissue is more sensitive than the ears. Because of this, eye drops are specially formulated to avoid eye irritation. If you get ear drops in your eyes, you should rinse them for 15 to 20 minutes with room temperature water and blink often. Seek medical help if discomfort or pain persists. There are precautions you can take to avoid mixing up eye drops and ear drops. For example, you can keep them in their original boxes, store them in different locations, and separate the timing of administration.