Mistaken identity: medicines not meant for the eye

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

Contributed by Jared Brown, Pharmacist

Standard initial first aid advice for accidental eye exposures: 15 minutes of rinsing with running water, holding the eyelids apart. (Alexander Raths / Shutterstock.com)

As a pharmacist working at the Poisons Information Centre, I have had my eyes opened to a range of dosing errors with medicines that I never thought would be so common.

Many involve taking too much of a medicine, taking it at the wrong time or swallowing products which are not to be swallowed. But another particularly common error is accidentally giving the wrong medicine into the eye.

Mistakes can happen with drops, creams and lotions, but are surprisingly common with superglue!

A typical case involved a 70-year-old woman. She rang the Poisons Information Centre with stinging and redness of her eye after putting in a drop that was actually a steroid lotion for her husband’s scalp. She confused it because it was in a small dropper bottle that looked very similar to her eye drops prescribed after eye surgery. We gave her standard initial first aid advice for accidental eye exposures: that is, 15 minutes of rinsing with running water, whilst holding the eyelids apart.

About 160 people every year call the NSW Poisons Information Centre after accidentally putting a medicine into the eye that is not intended for the eye. Nationally, this equates to around one person every day, and we don’t even get called in every instance.

The main culprits are prescription and over-the-counter steroids, antiseptics, antibiotics, ear wax removal and ear drying products, and nasal decongestants. It is easy to confuse these as they are usually in small containers with a similar appearance to many eye products. Even non-medicinal products – such as superglue – can be mistaken for an eye medicine. Luckily, most mistakes only result in temporary symptoms, but there are rare cases of eye injury with some products.

Here are some tips I recommend to help prevent errors:

  • keep products in their original box
  • store products that are given in different ways in separate places – e.g. store eye drops separately to ear drops, and keep these separate to skin products
  • dispose of expired or unused products by returning them to any pharmacy
  • check the product closely before use – many errors occur when reaching for a product on a bedside table in a dimly lit room.

If you have made an error with your medicine, you can call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 at any time from anywhere in Australia.