Sleeping in contacts, using eye drops that "get the red out," and more bad habits that can lead to serious eye problems when contact lens wearers are careless
For those of us not endowed with 20/20 vision, corrective lenses are a fact of life. Sure, eyeglasses are easy to throw on, but they can be impractical (ever tried to do hot yoga while wearing a pair?). Contact lenses, on the other hand, are better suited for sweaty activities, beach days, and date nights, which may explain why more than 30 million Americans choose to wear them.
But those slippery plastic discs come with a slew of issues of their own. After all, you can't just pop them in without a second thought—contact lenses are a medical device, reminds Thomas Steinemann, M.D., and professor at Case Western Reserve University. The problem: Lots of us do just pop 'em in and forget about 'em. We also tend to believe seriously risky myths ("I can keep these in overnight!", "Water works as contact solution, right?") that could hurt our eyes big time. So it's time to set the record straight—make sure you're keeping your peepers in tip-top shape by learning the truth about common contact misconceptions.
Myth: Lenses Can Be Worn Past the Recommended Time Limit
Reality: Overwear is common, but not the way to go. "Many people try to extend the use of their contacts to save money, but that's penny-wise and pound-foolish," Steinemann says. The reason: Lenses get worn out and coated with germs. Over time, this can cause infections. So if your lenses are supposed to be replaced after two weeks, don't wear them for a month! (Same goes for dailies—they need to be thrown out each night.)
Myth: It's OK to Sleep in Your Contacts Occasionally
Reality: You snooze, you lose: Even if you do it only once every couple weeks, wearing your lenses for 24 hours straight is not healthy, Steinemann says. "It's a piece of plastic that acts as a barrier and interrupts normal oxygen flow to your cornea." Sleeping in lenses provides two barriers from fresh oxygen: the lens and your eyelid. This makes it easier for germs to make contact with your cornea (um, gross!), which could lead to everything from bacteria and amoebas coming into contact with your cornea—and symptoms like itchy eyes, infections, and (in worst-case scenarios) even blindness, Steinemann says. You don't need a full night in lenses to risk this—studies show that napping has been associated with an increased risk of microbial keratitis, an infection of the cornea that could impair your vision permanently. Look out for symptoms like blurry vision, unusual redness, pain, increased sensitivity to light, tearing, discharge, or the sensation that there's something in your eye. (Psst: This is The Sleeping Position That Can Help You Avoid Disease.)
Myth: You Don't Really Need to Clean Your Lenses Each Day
Reality: If you have lenses that need to be cleaned daily, do it, well, daily—and dump out the old solution. First, always wash your hands with soap and water, Steinemann says. Then, after you put the contacts in, clean the case, rubbing it with a clean finger and solution in the morning, then letting it air dry during the day. At night, wash your hands, take out your contacts, and let them soak in fresh (not used!) solution overnight. Not taking these steps can put you at serious risk for keratitis, research shows.
Sound like too much effort for your busy life? (We know how it goes.) Dailies may be a better idea. "They may cost a little more upfront, but in the long run, the price will even out since you'll save on the cost of cases and lens solutions," Steinemann says.
Myth: You Can Use Decongestant Eye Drops
Reality: Beware of eye drops that claim to "get the red out." You can get hooked on them—and when you don't use them, your eyes can rebound, so you'll need to use the drops even more frequently, Steinemann says. This also prevents you from finding the issue that's actually making your eyes red, itchy, or watery. Dry eyes or allergies got you down? Find drops designed for contact lenses, usually called rewetting drops or artificial tears, Steinemann suggests. Make sure any product is preservative-free, which has been found to be less irritating that other types.
Myth: Tap Water Works as Contact Solution in a Pinch
Reality: "This is absolutely forbidden," Steinemann says. Even if your tap water is safe enough to drink, it's not sterile enough to clean contacts with. The reason: Water can contain a parasite called an acanthamoeba—and if this organism gets in your eye, it can cause a serious cornea infection called acanthamoeba keratitis, which is difficult to treat, and may even lead to blindness, studies suggest. Oh, and we hope this is obvious, but never spit on your lenses to clean them either!
Myth: You Can Shower (and Swim) in Them
Reality: Since the acanthamoeba parasite is commonly found in multiple water sources, this means you really shouldn't wear contacts while you shower, let alone swim. "If you do swim in contacts, take them out as soon as you get out after washing your hands thoroughly," Steinemann says. Throw them away, or clean and disinfect them overnight before wearing them again. Bottom line: Water and contacts don't mix. (Also, if you're still showering with super hot water, cut it out! This is The Case for Cold Showers.)
Myth: It's No Big Deal to Rim Your Inner Lash Line with Eyeliner
Reality: If you've even worn dramatic cat-eye kohl liner, you may have found that your eyeliner didn't just enhance your eyes—it got in them too. "Eye doctors don't recommend rimming your water line (the inner lash line) with eye liner, as it can easily migrate into your eyes and cause irritation," Steinemann says. If your eye feels irritated or starts to hurt after putting on makeup, make sure to see an eye doc, stat.
Myth: Colored Cosmetic Lenses Are Safe
Reality: Turning your eyes golden to go with your Twilight Halloween costume isn't worth it. "It's actually illegal to sell cosmetic contacts without giving an official assessment and fitting by an eye doctor," Steinemann says. Why? The size and shape of your cornea partly determines what type of lens you should wear—if they don't fit correctly, they can rub and cause microabrasions, which can let in germs that cause infections. Bottom line: Skip the illegal cosmetic lenses, and instead get them through an eye doctor or other eye care professional, who can give you a prescription.
Myth: You Only Need to See Your Doc Every Couple of Years
Reality: Go at least annually to check your prescription, which is only good for one year, Steinemann says. Other than that, listen to your body. If you're experiencing any light sensitivity, redness, or pain, take out your contacts and see a doctor ASAP. It could be anything from allergies to an infection from bacteria, fungus, or even an amoeba—and if you wait too long, you could run into serious trouble, Steinemann says. For information on healthy contact lens wear, check out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's website.