Dilating eyedrops

By Ann Griswold • Published: May 15th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Going to the doctor for an eye exam? Bring your sunglasses! Dilating eyedrops are possibly the most dreaded part of the eye exam. Everything is blurry for hours afterward and even dim lights seem too bright.

If these long-lasting effects make the drops seem like medieval torture devices, you’re on the right track. But go back even farther in history… the dilating drops used today are similar to ones used in ancient times by women to create a doe-eyed appearance and seduce their mates.

Modern-day doctors routinely dilate their patients’ pupils using a synthetic compound similar to atropine [A-troh-peen; pronounce the a like the a in hat], an extract from the nightshade plant. Dilation allows doctors to glimpse the eye’s inner workings and check for signs of hypertension, diabetes and other health problems.

In ancient times, very dilute solutions of atropine were used for cosmetic purposes. The extract was also called enchanter’s nightshade and belladonna, meaning “beautiful lady.” Revelers even added it to their wine to induce hallucinations. The practice proved lethal in many cases… symptoms of atropine overdose became so well-known that victims were said to be “red as a beet, dry as a bone, blind as a bat and mad as a hatter.”

But have no fear… the eyedrops used by your doctor today are considered perfectly safe for use during an eye exam. The only thing you need to worry about these days is whether you remembered your sunglasses… because otherwise you’ll have to walk around wearing disposable paper shades.