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What is Tetracaine?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated May 17, 2024
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Tetracaine is a medication available in the form of eye drops, or in a gel that is applied topically. This medication is an anesthetic, which means that it has a numbing effect. It works by blocking the nerves from transmitting pain signals.

Such eye drops are administered at a clinic or doctor’s office before an eye surgery or other procedure. Patients receiving tetracaine eye drops should refrain from touching or rubbing their eyes until the medication is no longer in effect. They may also need to wear an eye patch.

Tetracaine topical gel is generally used for relieving pain due to minor injuries, such as bee stings, sunburn, and cold sores. Patients should apply the smallest amount of gel necessary to lightly cover the area. It should be used no more than four times daily, or as directed by a doctor. A physician may also apply the gel to a patient’s mouth, throat, or nose to prevent any pain due to the insertion of a medical instrument in those places.

The topical version of this medication should not be applied to skin that is blistered. This includes severe burns. It should also not be used for puncture wounds or to cover large areas of the patient’s body.

Patients should be aware of the possible side effects. The eye drops may result in temporary redness, stinging, and burning. Patients should discuss possible risks to a breastfeeding infant or unborn baby before using this medication.

The use of the topical form of tetracaine may result in skin tenderness, mild burning, and white skin flakes at the application site. More serious side effects can include swelling, warmth, and severe burning or stinging of the area. It may also cause sensitivity to light, watery eyes, and eye irritation. Patients who experience these more serious side effects should discontinue use and call their doctor.

Rarely, topical tetracaine may result in side effects that require emergency medical attention. These include rapid or slow heart rate, fainting, and slow or stopped breathing. Patients may also experience dizziness, drowsiness, and nervousness, as well as blurred vision. Some possible signs of an overdose may include seizures, coma, and an uneven heart rate.

Both the topical gel and the eye drops may interact with other medical conditions. Patients should disclose their full medical history before taking these medications. They should also discuss any other medications or supplements they are taking.

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Discussion Comments
By anon264225 — On Apr 27, 2012

The description says not to apply tetracaine to "puncture" wounds. Does that mean that one should not apply tetracaine to any open wound, even on slightly broken skin, such as a good scratch?

By StarJo — On Aug 13, 2011

When I went in for LASIK surgery, the doctor used tetracaine eye drops to numb my eyes. They worked so well that I did not feel anything other than slight pressure.

I had been terrified in the days leading up to the procedure. I kept imagining the drops not working and sudden, excruciating pain shooting through my eyeball as it was being cut.

I was so relieved when my eyes went totally numb! The doctor touched them before starting the surgery just to make sure I couldn’t feel anything. Though I tensed up as the process started, I soon realized that I wouldn’t feel any pain.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 12, 2011

@orangey03 - I suffered the side effects of tetracaine from applying too much of it, too. It’s weird how when you are in pain, you forget about the precautionary statements on medications.

I had been driving all afternoon with the window down because my air conditioner wasn’t working very well. My entire left arm got sunburned, and I wanted something to stop the burning sensation.

I slathered tetracaine all over my arm. Initially, I got relief. Within the hour, my heartbeat slowed down so much that I passed out. My mom was able to wake me up, and I told her about the tetracaine. She rushed me to the hospital.

By orangey03 — On Aug 12, 2011

I used topical tetracaine on a wasp sting once. It totally numbed the pain, and I thought it would be ideal for treating all types of insect stings and bites.

My hands and feet got covered in ants while I was working in my flower bed. I did not know it, but beneath the weeds, they were building a mound. When I yanked them up, they instantly coated my hands, and the ones that fell to the ground blanketed my feet.

I ran screaming, flailing my limbs and clawing at the ants to remove them. I had so many bites that I applied tetracaine all over my hands and feet. I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to apply it to a large area, and I became very dizzy from the overdose.

By drtroubles — On Aug 12, 2011

You can buy tetracaine ointment over the counter at most pharmacies and it is a good thing to have on hand if you suffer from cold sores or bad sunburns. The ointment really does work as a pain killer, and while the numbing sensation is odd I think it really helps to make you more comfortable overall.

Another interesting use of tetracaine is how many after-bite solutions use this numbing agent to help with the pain and itchiness caused by things like bee stings and mosquito bites. Pretty much it is a great addition to any households first aid kit.

By Sara007 — On Aug 11, 2011

For those of you with children that hate visiting the doctor to have shots, blood taken, or IV's put in there is a way to make their experience a lot better. You can ask your doctor if they have any tetracaine gel so that you can numb the area that is going to get stuck.

A lot of doctor's offices I have been to have kept tetracaine on hand, but it is a good idea to ask about the gel before you go to your appointment. For a lot of kids the tetracaine does an amazing job of numbing the area where the needle goes so they don't feel a thing.

Often tetracaine needs to be put on in advance, usually 30-45 minutes before a needle, so it is something you really need to work out with your doctor beforehand.

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