Can You Swim While Wearing Contacts?
How bad can it be, really?!
With summer approaching, pool season is almost upon us. For contact-wearers though, it can take some extra planning to make sure you pack your contact lens case and solution. But let's be real...you may leave them in for a spontaneous dip. (Related: 5 Weird Side Effects of Too Much Sun)
So how bad is it really to swim with your contacts in? We asked eye doctors for the lowdown...and ladies, short version? It's definitely not advised.
Risks of Swimming In Your Contacts
Swimming with contacts in ups your risk for a bunch of gross (and sometimes serious) eye infections.
Docs advise against wearing contact lenses while swimming for some important reasons, says Mary-Ann Mathias, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Northwestern Medicine in Glenview, IL. "Swimming with contacts significantly increases the risk of serious corneal infections, which can lead to permanent vision loss from scarring or even loss of the eye. Even without serious corneal infection, it is likely to cause ocular irritation and conjunctivitis (aka pink eye)." Um, pass.
Are there certain types of water that are 'safer' for the eyes than others? Not really. Whether you're taking a dip in a pool, lake, or ocean, there are plenty of dangers swimming around in the water that put you at risk. (See: 7 Ways Summer Wreaks Havoc on Contact Lenses)
"Any water exposure to a contact in the eye is potentially dangerous," says Dr. Mathias. "Fresh or salt water in nature is full of amoeba and bacteria, and chlorinated water is still at risk of harboring certain viruses." Plus, the chemicals used in pools and hot tubs can cause serious inflammation of the eye, since they concentrate more in an eye with a contact in it, she explains. Essentially, your contact lens is a magnet for a whole bunch of gross things you don't want near your eyes.
"Specifically, swimming in contacts is a risk factor for a type of severe, painful, and potentially blinding infection caused by a parasite known as Acanthamoeba keratitis," says Beeran Meghpara, M.D., cornea surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital. While extremely rare in the United States, it is most common in people who wear contact lenses, and and swimming, using a hot tub, or showering while wearing lenses and poor lens hygiene are the biggest risk factors. While it can be treated with prescription meds, early diagnosis is crucial, since it can lead to corneal scarring and even vision loss and blindness if untreated, Dr. Meghpara says.
What to Do If You Do Swim In Your Contacts
While all of the above is super scary, realistically you probably aren't going to let a forgotten contact case or solution keep you from cooling off with a quick dip in the water. So what should you do if you do swim with your contacts in? (FYI, here are eight additional contact lens mistakes you may be making.)
"When you're done swimming, apply an artificial tear or re-wetting drop into the eyes and remove the contact lenses as soon as possible," says Dr. Mathias. "Once lenses are removed, continue to apply an artificial tear or lubricant eye drop into the eyes regularly (every two to four hours) for the next day or two to ensure the eyes recover from any surface irritation."
If you wear reusable contacts that get changed weekly or monthly, you'll want to place them in a peroxide-based cleaning solution, says Dr. Meghpara. If you have daily disposable contacts, toss them.
Plus, you may need to wait to wear another pair of contacts to give your eyes some extra time to recover. (Related: 3 Eye Exercises You Should Do to Improve Your Eye Health)
"If your eyes do feel irritated, make sure you don't wear your next pair of contacts until you feel 100 percent," says Dr. Mathias. "Wearing a new pair over irritated corneas can cause abrasions and infections, so wait until you feel no irritation and have no redness."
What to Do If You Suspect a Bigger Problem
"If you develop any eye pain, severe redness (or any redness that doesn't improve/resolve within 24 hours), or any drop in vision, do not attempt to wear any further contact lenses, and see your eye doctor immediately," says Dr. Mathias. "The sooner an issue is identified and treated, the better chance of preventing serious consequences." (Related: Why Your Eyes Are Dry and Irritated—and How to Find Relief)
So the bottom line on wearing contacts while swimming: You really shouldn't do it, but if you do, make sure you disinfect your lenses ASAP (or better yet, toss them out if you have the option), moisturize your eyes, and skip putting in another pair for a day to make sure your eyes recover, infection-free.