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Eye Drops vs. Gel vs. Ointment: What’s the Difference?

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close up of woman with green eyes putting eye drops in to her eye

With so many different options available, picking the right product to treat symptoms caused by dry eye, pink eye, or other forms of irritation and infection can be tough. The main three treatment options you will most likely want to purchase are eye drops, eye gels, and eye ointments. To get accurately diagnosed and find the best treatment option for your condition, it is important to book an appointment for an eye examination so a professional eye doctor can help.

Eye Drops

Eye drops can relieve the symptoms of most eye problems including dry eye, pink eye, red eyes, or itchiness. Deciding what kind of eye drops will work best for you will depend on the symptoms you are experiencing.

Eye drops can help relieve the following eye symptoms:

Non-prescription vs. Prescription Eye Drops

Eye drops can typically be broken down into two different categories: non-prescription eye drops and prescription eye drops.

There are two categories of non-prescription eye drops:

Eye Drops for Dryness

Lubricating eye drops, or artificial tears, can provide relief for short-term dry eyes. These drops are most effective when treating dry eye caused by computer eye strain, being outdoors in windy and sunny conditions, tiredness, or other temporary problems. Most non-prescription lubricating eye drops have added elements that are already in your natural tears, which can make your eyes feel more comfortable when compared to using drops with additives that are unnatural to your tears.

Eye Drops for Infections

Pink eye is one of the most common types of eye infection in the world. The term “pink eye” can describe three types of conjunctivitis.

Different types of eye drops may be required for each type of pink eye:

woman applying eye ointment to her right eye as she uses other hand to hold eye down

Gels and Ointments

If your eye symptoms are more severe, it may be more effective to use a lubricating gel or ointment instead of eye drops. Gels and ointments can cause blurry vision for a while after you put them in your eyes, so most people only use these treatments right before they go to sleep. Gels and ointments can treat the various symptoms that are mentioned above, but are typically thicker than regular eye drops and will stay in your eye for a longer period of time. 


Gels are mostly used to treat dry eye. Eye gels can either be a more viscous type of eye drop or can come as an insert that will dissolve over time when placed in between your eyelid and eyeball. Gels will perform a similar role to eye drops when treating dry eye but will take more time to become effective in the process of lubricating the surface of your eye and can cause blurry vision. Overall, gels will be more effective than eye drops when used to treat more severe symptoms caused by dry eye.


Eye ointments are drugs in a greasy, semisolid form that use your body warmth to make them melt. Once you have applied an ointment to your eye, it will break into tiny drops which will accumulate between your eyeball and eyelid. This gives the medicine time to start working. 

Ointments are typically more effective at treating symptoms than eye drops and can treat more symptoms when compared to gels. Similar to gels, ointments take more time to become effective and can cause blurry vision when they are applied.

You could be given eye ointment for several reasons:

Most ointments will require a prescription, but more mild ointments (like ones that can treat dry eye) can be purchased over the counter.

Written by Dr. Miranda Ranieri

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