Around 45 million Americans wear contact lenses, so proper care is important for many people’s eye health and overall wellbeing. But the American Optometric Association says 6 out of 7 lens wearers admit to at least 1 type of poor hygiene behavior that puts them at risk for an infection.
“It’s almost like you’re rolling the dice when you don’t take proper care of your contact lenses,” says Steven Anderson, MD, an ophthalmologist in Chattanooga. “It could only be a matter of time before something goes wrong.”
Here are some of the most common contact lens care mistakes, what can result, and steps you can take to keep your eyes healthy.
4 habits to avoid
- Sleeping in your lenses. Moisture and oxygen are your eyes’ natural contamination fighters. Contacts reduce the amount of oxygen and moisture reaching your cornea. This becomes even more pronounced when you sleep, because you aren’t blinking. Without that tear film washing over your eye, bacteria can build up, putting your cornea at risk.
- Putting your contact lens in your mouth. “You’ve got tons of bacteria in your mouth,” says Dr. Anderson. “When you put a contact in your mouth, you’re getting all these bacteria riding along when you put it back in your eye.”
- Not cleaning your lenses correctly. There’s a very specific way to clean contact lenses, which we’ll cover below. It’s important not to rush through the process — or skip it by just putting your lens into saline solution.
- Not storing your lenses in a clean case. Just as you’re supposed to clean your contacts a certain way to get rid of the bacteria, you’re supposed to store them a certain way, too.
3 common eye infections
If your eyes start feeling itchy or irritated or sensitive to light, you may have developed an infection. Some can be painful and even cause temporary blurriness or permanent vision loss.
Here are 3 common eye infections you should be aware of:
- Bacterial conjunctivitis. The lining of your eyelid and the white part of your eye (also known as the sclera) can become infected and inflamed, turning it pink or even red as a result. If you have thick discharge or pus drain from your eyes, you may need to see your doctor for antibiotic eyedrops to clear up this infection.
- Stye. A bacterial infection can cause a painful red lump called a stye to develop at the edge of your eyelid, often at the root of an eyelash. (Some people get styes confused with chalazions, which are lumps that can form when an oil gland in the eyelid gets blocked.)
- Keratitis is a potentially serious infection of the cornea that can develop quickly. If not treated, it can lead to blindness, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Bacteria, viruses, fungi or even parasites could settle on your lenses and then contribute to a case of keratitis. If you start noticing anything unusual, from redness or pain to excessive tearing or discharge, contact your eye doctor.
8 tips that can help you keep your eyes healthy
Regardless of the type of contact lens you wear, it’s not hard to take care of your lenses correctly– and to ward off infection. These simple steps will help you keep your eyes safe from infection:
- Always wash your hands when handling your lenses. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends starting with clean hands whenever you need to touch your contact lenses.
- Clean your lenses regularly and thoroughly. After you wash your hands, use fresh, store-bought cleaning solution and rub each lens as you clean it. Rinse each lens with more clean solution.
- Store your lenses correctly. You just painstakingly cleaned your lenses. Don’t put them back in a dirty old case. Even if it looks clean, it could still be harboring bacteria. When you take your lenses out of the case to wear, discard the old storage solution. And when it’s time to store them again, wipe out the case and put in fresh solution.
- Replace the lens storage cases regularly. You should throw out your lens cases and replace them with new ones at least once every three months, according to the American Optometric Association.
- Don’t sleep in your contacts. No matter how late you’re up, take out your contact lenses before you go to bed. (And store them correctly, of course.) Note: if you wear extended wear contact lenses, you might be able to sleep in them overnight or even for a series of nights, but pay close attention to your doctor’s recommendation for how often you need to remove them and give your eyes a break.
- Skip wearing your contacts if you do have an infection. Even if you do take all the proper steps to care for your contacts, it’s still possible to get an eye infection. Take out your contacts and throw them away. Wait until the infection has cleared up (or finished a course of antibiotics, if prescribed) to wear a new set of contacts again.
- Only wear your contact lenses as long as recommended.“Some people try to extend the life of their temporary lenses beyond what is specified to save money,” says Dr. Anderson. “Everyone wants to save money, but the cost of treating problems from extending wear can quickly outstrip any savings from keeping lenses too long.”
- Don’t swim in your contacts. Contaminated water can harbor all sorts of pathogens that can contaminate your lenses.
If you have a child or teenager who wants to wear contacts, consider their maturity level and current hygiene before you give them the go-ahead. “Don’t assume they’re going to be taking care of them properly,” warns Dr. Anderson. “Watch them. And go over how to take care of their contacts from time to time.”