Today’s blog addresses problems that come from improper contact lens use. It’s another one that falls into the category of “Things That Should Be Frequently-Asked Questions But Generally Aren’t.” If you wear contact lenses, are interested in trying them, or are a parent of a contact lens-wearing child, this is the post for you.
Confessions of a bad contact lens user
I started wearing contact lenses when I was 12. I was so excited, but somehow I managed to miss the part where I still had a huge responsibility to my eye health. I know the nice people here at North Cascade Eye Associates talked to me multiple times about the dangers of my bad contact lens habits (I perpetually slept in them) but I never really “got it.” Looking back, I am amazed that I didn’t cause permanent damage to my own cornea – but I do know I came close. I eventually had to give up contact lenses entirely (I had LASIK at 21 and now wear glasses for driving.)
In order to prevent people from making my mistakes, I am hoping this post will explain clearly why proper contact lens care is crucial, and then give you some concrete rules to follow so your eyes can stay protected and healthy.
The problems that come with contact lens abuse
Among eye doctors and technicians, sleeping in contact lenses and caring for them improperly is actually called “contact lens abuse.” And it turns out eye professionals can usually tell if you’re an abuser, no matter what you say at your eye exam, because your cornea (the outermost surface of your eye) will actually look bad.
Just think about that for a minute. I know that should have been my first clue that maybe my doctor wasn’t exaggerating when she said sleeping in my contacts was bad for me.
Here’s how it works:
Your cornea is one of the only places in your body that doesn’t get its much-needed oxygen from blood vessels. It gets it from the air instead. When you wear soft contact lenses, a limited amount of oxygen gets to your eye, which is fine until you close those eyes for prolonged periods of time. During sleep, between those two layers (your eyelid and the lens), no oxygen gets through at all. The doctor can tell if your cornea has been starved of oxygen by looking at it under magnification – swelling and little bumps called “endothelial microcysts” are just some of the symptoms they might find.
If these problems go on for too long, your eye will be at increased risk of eye infection and corneal ulcers (open sores on the cornea). Dr. Nannette Crowell tells me that when she gets a phone call from the ER for a patient with a bad eye infection or a possible corneal ulcer, the first question she asks is if the patient has been sleeping in his or her contact lenses. Nine times out of ten the answer is, “Why yes, how did you know?”
Aside from being quite painful, these conditions can even get serious enough to cause permanent blindness. Not cleaning your contact lenses, or using the wrong solution (or tap water) to do so, can also lead to infection and ulcers. I will address all of these things in the rules below.
Contact lenses that don’t fit properly also present their own problems of discomfort and damage. Your eye has a unique curvature. One contact lens does not fit all eyes, which is why you need to always have a full fitting with a professional to find a brand and style that matches the shape of your eye most comfortably. Therefore:
Rule 1: Always have a professional involved.
Even if you don’t need prescription contact lenses, you might want them for cosmetic purposes. It could be crazy cat-eyes for Halloween, or maybe you just want to change your eye color for a day. You could simply order contact lenses online for that sort of thing…but you shouldn’t.
Instead, allow yourself an extra month before your costumed event and get a proper fitting from an eye doctor (which usually includes several visits.) I know Cascadia Eye will do fittings for Wild Eyes and other cosmetic brands – my sister, a perpetual geek convention cosplayer, has made arrangements in the past to have the clinic look at her specialty lenses to make sure they don’t damage her eyes.
Rule 2: Don’t sleep in your contact lenses (unless they are designed for it.)
I may have mentioned this before. Now, many people can’t stand the feeling of contact lenses that have essentially dried onto their eyes overnight. That is a good thing. But take it from one who knows: if you don’t care about the sticky or irritated feeling that comes from sleeping in contacts, “forgetting” to take them out at night seems awfully convenient. You wake up able to see! You don’t have to haul solution and whatnot along on trips! It’s one less thing to have to remember with your nightly routine! (Or maybe that one is just a “me” problem?) At any rate, no matter how much easier it seems or how forgetful you are, you simply can’t afford to let it become a permanent habit. If you find it impossible to remember no matter how hard you try (again, this was a problem I faced,) then you might need to give up on contact lenses entirely. Your eye health is more important than avoiding inconveniences.
Rule 3: Care for your contact lenses properly.
If you’ve gotten a proper fitting, the technician or doctor has likely already explained the need for replacing your contact lenses at regular intervals (which vary depending on brand and type) and cleaning them daily. Dr. Maria VanNurden, one of our contact lens experts, advises you to throw out your contact lens storage case at least every three months to prevent nasty things from growing there. Never use saline solution or any kind of water to store your lenses. You can use a no-rub solution to clean them, but Dr. VanNurden also advises you to use a gentle rub with your fingers as part of your daily care. Don’t ever reuse solution or “top it up” from your last use – always replace it completely with fresh solution.
Rule 4: If there are problems…
Take out your contact lenses immediately and make an appointment with your eye doctor. If you develop a red eye or itching, burning, swelling, or pain: don’t just wait for it to go away. An infection will only get worse with time. A corneal ulcer needs medical attention. For more information, go here. Or you can always call us and ask!
Contact North Cascade Eye Associates
If you would like more information, or if you would like to schedule an appointment at North Cascade Eye Associates, please contact us today.
In addition, join us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ to ask your questions about eyes, exams, and our practice. We’d love to hear from you – and I might write a blog to address your questions in the future.