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  • Red-Eye Drops: Poisonous to Drink, Safe If Used Correctly

    By Jennifer Churchill and Ari Soglin
    Edited By Vered Hazanchuk
    Published Feb. 22, 2021

    Eye drops designed to treat redness are not intended to be consumed orally. If swallowed, the medication can cause illness and even death. The poisonous effect made headlines when Lana Clayton, 52, was charged for murdering her husband by adding redness-relieving eye drops to his drinking water for three days. 

    While eye drops can be dangerous if swallowed, experts say the chemical used to get the red out of your eyes is safe when used correctly. 

    What is in redness-relieving eye drops?

    Commonly used drops marketed to reduce redness in the eyes typically contain tetrahydrozoline, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1954 and belongs to a family of drugs called imidazoles. The chemical is found in Visine, Murine Plus, Altazine, Clarine and some other over-the-counter eye drops, according to Drugs.comConstricting blood vessels in your eyes is how they “get the red out.” 

    The FDA considers the risk for these products to be low as they are labeled for external use only and are clearly marked “keep out of reach of children.” 

    What happens if you drink eye drops?

    Intentionally or accidentally drinking eye drops can lead to toxic blood levels. When used in the eyes as directed to reduce redness, these types of eye drops are not absorbed systemically in amounts that lead to toxicity.

    When consumed orally, tetrahydrozoline passes quickly through the gastrointestinal tract, rapidly reaching the blood and the central nervous system.

    Symptoms of an overdose of tetrahydrozoline include drowsiness, slow breathing or absence of breathing, slow heartbeat, hypothermia and possibly even coma.

    Children are most at risk of Visine poisoning

    Most cases of poisoning are not criminal, but accidental by children or pets who find the small bottles of odorless, clear solution. 

    “Size of the individual and the total dose are the most critical issues for causing harm, and so children are most at risk,” said Wiley Chambers, MD, an ophthalmologist with the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the FDA. “In general, sleepiness or drowsiness are symptoms of concern if children — particularly those below the age of 6 — consume more than 1 milliliter in a day.” 

    Clinical pharmacologist and president of PharmaLogic Development, Inc., Gary Novack, PhD, agrees. “Because of their small size, even a dose as low as 1 to 2 milliliters may be toxic to children, according to the FDA website.”

    A typical bottle of eye drops contains anywhere from 15 to 30 milliliters of solution. Putting two drops in both eyes six times a day would only equal about one milliliter of fluid. 

    What to do if someone drinks eye drops

    According to the material safety data sheet you should NOT induce vomiting and you should do the following:

    “Examine the lips and mouth to ascertain whether the tissues are damaged, a possible indication that the toxic material was ingested; the absence of such signs, however, is not conclusive. Loosen tight clothing such as a collar, tie, belt or waistband. If the victim is not breathing, perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Seek immediate medical attention.”