Proper contact lens hygiene is nothing to roll your eyes at: A new government report warns that bad habits (like wearing your lenses to bed) can lead to eye infections and possibly permanent injuries.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined more than 1,000 cases of contact lens-related infections reported to a federal database over the last decade, and found that nearly 1 in 5 of those infections resulted in eye damage—either a decline in vision, a scarred cornea, or the need for a corneal transplant. Yikes.
But the agency also found that by simply using your contacts the way you're supposed to, you can protect your peepers: About 25% of the reported cases involved behaviors known to put a person at greater risk of eye infection.
“Contact lenses are a safe and effective form of vision correction when worn and cared for as recommended,” said Michael Beach, PhD, director of the CDC’s Healthy Water Program, in a press release about the survey. “However, improper wear and care of contact lenses can cause eye infections that sometimes lead to serious, long-term damage.”
Below, seven mistakes you might be making, and what to do instead.
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You sleep in your contacts
The enzymes and antibodies that protect the surface of your eyes require oxygen to fight off germs. When your eyes are closed at night, the air supply is reduced; wear your contacts to bed and there's even less oxygen available. The bottom line: When the PJs come on, the contacts should come out.
You handle your lenses with dirty fingers
To avoid transferring oil, dirt, and bacteria to your eyes (ew), clean your hands before you clean your contacts. "Contact lenses are foreign bodies as is," says Randy McLaughlin, OD, an ophthalmologist at Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. "Add outside germs into the mix and that can lead to infection."
You're not rubbing your contacts
Even if you use a ‘no-rub’ contact solution, it's still a good idea: Give your lenses a rub in your (well-cleaned) palm to remove germs and protein buildup, says Dr. McLaughlin. Post-rub, let your lenses soak overnight to remove any excess debris your fingers might have missed.
You don't change your solution daily
As Reena Garg, MD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, told Health in a prior interview, "That's like doing your laundry in dirty water." According to the CDC, you should always use fresh multipurpose saline solution (never water!), and don't mix old saline solution with new in your contact case. In fact, you should empty the case after putting in your contacts, rinse it with fresh saline, dry it with a fresh, clean tissue and store it upside down on a clean tissue (with the lids off), until you are ready to use it again.
You shower and swim with your contacts in
The CDC advises keeping your lenses away from water (including pool water) to avoid a rare but potentially blinding infection caused by an amoeba called Acanthamoeba, as well as other types of infections. Beware of tap water, too. "We want to do what we can to not get germs in the eye, and tap water may have that," explains Dr. McLaughlin. Bacteria and parasites in water can get caught under your lenses, especially in breeding grounds like hot tubs and pools. If you're a swimmer, you may want to invest in prescription goggles.
You leave your lenses in too long
When you're at home and on weekends, give your eyes a break and wear your glasses, says Berkeley, Michigan-based ophthalmologist Steven Shanbom, MD. In a prior interview with Health, he recommended that lens wearers keep their contacts in for no more than 12-14 hours a day.
You keep your lenses past their expiration date
Following the instructions on your pack of lenses is the easiest way to keep your eyes safe, says Dr. McLaughlin. "People think they're doing fine with their lenses and then they don't throw them away. That's how they can get into trouble with hypersensitivity and conjunctivitis," he says. He says daily contact lenses are the way to go since they cut down on germ buildup from being disposed of at the end of each day.