If you wear contact lenses, it’s likely you’ve occasionally been guilty of wearing contacts too long. Whether it happens because your workday rolls into a long night out, you don’t have a spare pair, or you just plain forget you’re wearing them in the first place – it’s bound to happen.
And, as a contact lens wearer, you know that it’s not a good thing to overwear them, or sleep in them. But do you know why it’s not healthy for your eyes?
Let’s break it down.
A Brief History of the Contact Lens
It’s hard to believe, but the first contact lens was invented in the 1800s. Even more impressive, it’s believed that the great Leonardo Da Vinci inspired this invention from drawings he did of human eye optics back in 1508!
Early contact lenses were nowhere near the comfortable models we have today. In fact, they starved the eye of oxygen so badly, they could only be worn on the eyeball for a few hours at a time.
In 1936, a lighter type of contact lens was introduced, but it wasn’t until 1948 that the first contact lenses resembling modern “gas permeable lenses” made an appearance. Then in 1959, the first “soft” hydrogel contact lenses hit the market. Today, more than 90 percent of contact lenses prescribed are soft lenses.1
How Does Contact Lens Overwear Affect Vision?
As contact lenses have become more popular for vision correction, and lenses themselves have become vastly more comfortable, more people are choosing to wear them. But while contact lenses are wonderfully convenient, if not used correctly, big problems can result.
You see, wearing contact lenses for too long can cause irritated eyes, eye infections, and even permanent damage to your eyes.
Symptoms of Wearing Contacts Too Long
Eye irritation can be just that – irritating – or it could be the sign of a much more serious eye issue.
Here are the initial symptoms of eye irritation or infection:
- Unusually red eyes
- Itchy or gritty eyes
- Eye discomfort
- Excessively watery eyes
- Eye pain
- Blurred vision
- Sensitivity to light
- Eye ulcers2
Interestingly, many of these problems begin because the eye becomes “oxygen-starved.” Though today’s lenses are “breathable,” this can only be maintained for a limited period of time. They aren’t meant to be worn indefinitely.
An optometrist can further advise on how to treat the issue depending on your specific situation. However, you are usually advised to stop wearing contacts temporarily. An examination of the eye will be done to assess the degree of inflammation, and a topical medication or steroid, if any, will be recommended.
Once you get the okay from your optometrist to wear contacts again, it is important that a contact lens fitting and perhaps some additional instruction be carried out.
Serious Outcomes of Wearing Contacts Too Long
Eye irritation symptoms are only the beginning in some cases. Some serious eye conditions can be caused by overwear and/or bacteria from improper lens care:
- Corneal abrasions
- Corneal infections
- Corneal ulcers (open sores in the outer layer of the cornea)
- Eye infections, like conjunctivitis – usually seen as papillary conjunctivitis (an allergic reaction to the lens)
- More serious eye infections, like acanthamoeba keratitis, or fungal keratitis
- Impaired vision or a loss of vision3,4
If you experience any symptoms of eye irritation or infection, including redness from inflamed blood vessels, you should remove your lenses and visit an eye professional. Don’t wear your lenses again until your ophthalmologist says it’s okay.
Does Sleeping in Contacts Cause Pain or Discomfort?
Sleeping in contacts is one of the worst things you can do, outside of not cleaning your lenses properly. And, according to the journal Ophthalmology, people who wear their contacts to bed are nearly seven times more likely to develop an eye infection.5
Forgetting to remove your lenses overnight can cause pain, discomfort, and irritation. But even worse, it could hurt your cornea.
You see, your cornea needs oxygen to function, and the contact lens acts as a barrier to this (even though it does have some breathability).
In some cases, if your eye doesn’t get enough oxygen, small blood vessels can begin to grow in the cornea in an attempt to get oxygen back to the area. This overgrowth of blood vessels, known as corneal neovascularization, is irreversible, and it can cause serious vision problems.6
What if You Accidentally Fall Asleep in Your Contacts?
If you wear contact lenses long enough, you might nod off while you’re still wearing them. If this happens, the smartest plan of attack is:
- Don’t immediately put your fingers to your eyes and pull your lenses out in bed –– your cornea will have swelled slightly, and you risk making it more susceptible to bacteria, especially if you haven’t washed your hands.
- Apply rewetting drops to add some moisture back in, and wait 5 minutes for any swelling to go down. Then, wash your hands thoroughly, and carefully remove the lenses.
- Don’t forget to clean your lenses thoroughly if they’re not daily disposable lenses.
- Don’t wear your contacts for a day, so that your eyes can get a good dose of oxygen.7
How Long Should I Wear My Contact Lenses?
It’s best to ask your eye doctor how long you should wear your contact lenses, as it does depend on the type of contact lenses you wear. Follow your eye doctor’s advice to the letter.
Never try to get extra wear out of your lenses to save money. It just isn’t worth the risk to your eye health.
The CDC has also recognized the importance of teaching people about the consequences of improper contact lens use. They’ve started a campaign to remind people of the importance of regularly changing their lenses.
Which Lens Materials Are Best Suited for Avoiding Eye Infections?
The main types of contact lenses are:
- Soft Contact Lenses (also known as hydrogel lenses) are the most common lens worn today. They are made of soft plastic polymers and water. Oxygen can easily filter through the lens material to the cornea, so they are very comfortable.
- Rigid Gas Permeable Lenses are not old-school hard lenses. In fact, they actually allow more oxygen to your cornea than soft lenses. And, because they’re more rigid, they can offer sharper vision. This type of lens is also more durable, and proteins don’t stick to them as easily – making them easier to clean. The only downside? They’re not quite as comfortable as soft contact lenses.8
Both of these lens types are good for your eyes. However, both have the ability to cause eye infections if used incorrectly. The contact lens material is irrelevant when it comes to eye infections; it’s all about proper use and handling.
After being prescribed contact lenses, a follow-up appointment with your optometrist is always a good idea, so you can both learn about what works best for your eyes.
Which Eye Drops Work Best for Relief from Eye Irritation?
Eye drops can be an effective way to ease the discomfort of minor eye irritation caused by wearing contact lenses. You will want:
- Lubricating eye drops for dry eye
- Decongestant eye drops for redness
- Antihistamine eye drops for allergy-induced redness
- Rewetting drops for use against “dry eye” while wearing contact lenses
- Prescription drops prescribed by your eye doctor for eye infections9
If you are suffering from unexpected eye irritation, it’s important to visit an eye care professional for a check-up.
Eye Care Safety – Minimize the Risks
Contact lens wearers need to be aware that though lenses are a wonderful invention, they do require proper eye care safety every time you use them.
You should always wash your hands with soap and water (and dry with a lint-free towel) before touching your eyes or eyelids to prevent bacteria from entering the eyes. The lens surface should always be cleaned properly and stored in a proper contact lens case with an approved solution.
If you’re not sure how to clean your contacts, ask your eye doctor for help.
Choosing between glasses or contacts doesn’t have to be a decision, either. Wearing glasses some of the time is one of the best things contact wearers can do to help their eyes breathe.