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Keeping Contact Lenses Clean Can Prevent Serious Eye Infections

Expert Chats

People commonly make mistakes with contact lens hygiene. Amy Watts, OD, weighed in on the best practices and safety tips for contact lens wearers.

Are you practicing proper contact lens hygiene?

An estimated 45 million people in the United States wear contact lenses to improve their vision, but some may not be using best practices when it comes to keeping their lenses in optimal shape and cleanliness. Not practicing proper lens hygiene can carry serious risks, including eye infections that can potentially jeopardize a person’s vision.

Focus spoke with Amy Watts, OD, director of the Optometry and Contact Lens Service at Mass Eye and Ear, to learn more about contact lens hygiene best practices and the biggest mistakes wearers make.

What are the risks of not practicing proper contact lens hygiene?

Contact lens wearers are at risk for corneal inflammation, called keratitis, and serious corneal infections if they do not practice proper hygiene. These infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or by parasites called acanthamoeba. The infections can cause redness, pain, light sensitivity, and threaten a person’s vision and quality of life. That’s why it is so important to practice proper hygiene and care for your contact lenses.

Where should a contact lens wearer begin on the path to proper hygiene practices?

My first piece of advice is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before handling your contact lenses. If your hands are not clean, microbes can get into your lenses and then your eyes. Then dry your hands completely with a clean lint-free towel or paper towel. It is very important not to get any water into the eye when wearing contact lenses.

Moisturizing soaps and hand sanitizers should be avoided since they can leave a residue on the lenses.

Then, you are ready to safely insert the contact lenses (here is a step-by-step guide on how to insert soft contact lenses).

How often should you change your contact lenses?

Always ask your doctor what the recommended wearing schedule is for your lenses. Many lenses prescribed today are daily disposable. However, biweekly, monthly, quarterly and annual replacement lenses are also available. An eye doctor may prescribe more frequent replacement for patients with dry eye or allergies.

It is important not to overwear your contact lenses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a campaign called “Contact Lenses Are Like Underwear;” just like we all know not to overwear our underwear, the same is true for contact lenses. Extended contact lens wear can make the eyes feel dry and raise risk for infections.

Additionally, the cornea – the part of the eye where the lens sits — receives oxygen from the atmosphere and not a direct blood supply. Therefore when we put a contact lens over the cornea, oxygen flow is reduced. This reduction is minimal for most of the contact lenses on the market, but it is still a good idea to try to limit wear to 12 to 14 hours per day rather than 16 to 18 hours.

How often should you change your contact lens solution?

Contact lens solution should be completely changed each day or more frequently if you store your lenses in the middle of the day, such as for napping or swimming. Use completely new saline solution and never top off old solution.

An eye care provider will help choose the disinfection system that is best for a patient’s eyes depending on the lens type and the patient’s eye health. One should never switch brands just based on what is convenient to buy or on sale.

Most saline solutions will keep lenses disinfected for up to seven days. After that time, the saline would need to be replaced and the lens disinfected overnight prior to use. Cases should be replaced at least every 3 months and more often if the case is damaged or visibly soiled.

What are the biggest hygiene mistakes contact lens wearers make?

Many of the mistakes people make with contact lenses come down to convenience and cost-saving.

contact lenses are like underwear
Credit: CDC.gov

When I say convenience, a lens wearer may use tap water or rewet their contact lens with saliva when they do not have saline solution convenient. They may not wash their hands before inserting or removing lenses, because they do not have a sink nearby or do not feel they have enough time with their busy schedules.

Another common convenience mistake people make is when they sleep in their contact lenses because it is inconvenient to remove their lenses each night when they are tired from a long day. Similarly, people may not remove their lenses before swimming or showering because the extra step seems burdensome due to time or keeping supplies on hand.

As for cost-saving mistakes, wearers may not replace their lenses as frequently as needed so they can reduce the overall cost of wearing contacts. Some people will also reuse or top off their contact lens solution rather than using completely new saline each night to stretch the life of the bottle of saline.

Of course, memory is also a major factor in contact lens mistakes. Some people simply don’t remember their contact lens hygiene instructions or they can forget to take their lenses out when they sleep or swim. Since contact lens wear is generally very safe, it is easy for people to become complacent.

What are signs something might be wrong and you need to call your eye doctor?

If you experience any blurred vision, light sensitivity, red eye, irritation and/or pain in the eye, it is important to get checked out by an eye doctor as soon as possible.

To make an appointment with an optometrist in the Contact Lens Service, please call 617-573-3202.

About Our Expert

Amy C. Watts, OD, is an optometrist and the Director of the Optometry and Contact Lens Service and the Vision Rehabilitation Service at Mass Eye and Ear.

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