Contact lens technology has improved drastically since the days when your only option was putting hard plastic chips on your eyeball. But even with all the optical advancements, there are still some activities doctors recommend that you avoid while wearing contacts — and you may be surprised to hear that that list includes showering and swimming.
As a former contacts-wearer (now a full-time glasses devotee), I remember how luxurious it felt wearing contacts in the shower and actually being able to see my legs while attempting to shave them. And the same went for swimming (minus the leg-shaving). But as it turns out, I really shouldn’t have been doing either activity while wearing contacts, and you probably shouldn’t either. Lifehacker spoke with two ophthalmologists about these safety issues. Here’s what you need to know.
Water and contacts don’t mix
The guidelines from the American Academy of Ophthalmology are pretty straightforward when it comes to showering or swimming while wearing contact lenses: they recommend not doing it. The primary reason for this, Howard R. Krauss, M.D., a surgical neuro-ophthalmologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Centre in Santa Monica, California tells Lifehacker, is that contact lenses are like sponges and will hold onto amoebae, bacteria, viruses and toxic chemicals, which will increase the risk of harm to the eye.
According to Benjamin Bert, M.D., an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Centre in Fountain Valley, California, pool and hot tub water have been known to harbour the acanthamoeba parasite which can cause serious and sometimes blinding corneal infections. But, as Krauss points out, acanthamoeba can also be present in local tap water, as well as fresh water ponds, lakes and rivers. “Getting the water into your eyes can introduce the acanthamoeba to the contact lens, allowing significant time for it to migrate and eventually enter the cornea to cause the infection,” Bert explains.
According to Bert, 80 per cent of acanthamoeba keratitis cases are in contact lens wearers, so the risk is definitely higher than the general population. And if you do contract the disease, starting treatment immediately is vital. The symptoms often include severe pain, blurred vision and light sensitivity, he explains. The bad news is that the infection can progress to cause serious damage to the cornea, leading to scarring or even perforation requiring an emergency corneal transplant.
The good news is that infections from acanthamoeba are pretty rare. “As long as good contact lens hygiene is followed and there is no exposure to the sources that can contain the acanthamoeba, the risks are quite low,” Bert says.
What to do if you get water in your eyes while wearing contacts
If you have inadvertently worn contact lenses in the shower or while swimming, Krauss says that it is safest to remove the contact lenses and replace with fresh lenses. Of course, this would be most practical for those who wear daily disposable lenses. If your contacts are not disposable, Bert says to be sure to clean the lens thoroughly before placing it in your eye.
Other things to keep in mind
Of course, as Krauss points out, life is a minefield and there never is a totally safe option in any decision. In most cases, he says, it is healthier for your eye to never wear contact lenses.
If you're worried about parasitic infections, Krauss stresses the importance of removing your contacts before going to sleep. This is because when the cornea becomes relatively oxygen deprived while your eyes are shut, there is at a fourteen-fold risk of infection compared to daytime wear of contact lenses.
On the other hand, someone with very poor eyesight who opts not to wear contact lenses for fear of acanthamoeba may be more likely to slip break his or her neck, Krauss says.
In fact, he notes that showering in and of itself, or river rafting or swimming are activities which regularly produce a higher incidence of injury or death than is the incidence of acanthamoeba keratitis. So really, everything has its risks — just do the best you can. But try and pop those contacts out before showering or swimming.