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You don’t have to choose between your beloved contacts or itch-free eyes. Just follow these strategies.
Love the freedom of contact lenses, but hate how they irritate your eyes? You aren’t alone.
Estimates vary, but as many as half of contact lens wearers give them up within three years, mainly because of discomfort, according to a 2017 review in the journal Clinical Optometry.
The most common source: dry eye, a scratchy, itchy sensation that affects about 40% of people with soft contacts, according to the review, which was conducted by the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“Dry eye is pretty common in people who wear contacts,” says John Perez, O.D., an optometrist with America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Layton, Utah. “When you put the plastic lens in your eye, it comes into contact with the glands in the back of the eyelids, which causes a rubbing or chafing effect. Over time, that causes stress, and you could potentially have more dry eye symptoms later on.”
This is especially true for people over the age of 50, who are also more likely to develop dry eye than their younger counterparts, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI).
In general, the risk of dry eye increases with age, Dr. Perez explains. That’s because as we age, we lose our ability to produce tears, which keep our eyes lubricated and healthy. These tears are a mixture of water, oil, and more than 1,000 types of proteins that protect the surface of the eye from irritants, according to the NEI.
The good news: If you want to relieve the symptoms of dry eye, you don’t have to toss your contact lenses for good. Here are seven ways to sidestep the itchiness.
Did you know that contact lens prescriptions need to be renewed every year? Find an exam time that fits your schedule!
Solution #1: Change Up Your Contact Lenses
Not all contact lenses are created equal—or equally breathable, that is. Some lenses can allow more oxygen to pass through the plastic and reach the eye, says Dr. Perez. That’s important, because oxygen can help keep your eyes healthy and ward off some of the symptoms of dry eye, he explains.
Doctors use what’s called a Dk value to measure the permeability of a lens. For example, contact lenses that have a high permeability (meaning, they allow more oxygen to pass through the plastic) are given a high Dk value, whereas lenses that aren’t as porous are given a low Dk value.
“If you start a patient in a contact lens that has a lower Dk value, they can have more symptoms with dry eye,” says Dr. Perez. “In that case, switching to a different contact lens that has a higher Dk value may be beneficial.”
If you’ve been increasingly bothered by dry eye symptoms, talk with your eye doctor about different lens options that might be a better fit for you.
Solution #2: Make a Temporary Switch to Eyeglasses
The longer you wear your contacts, the more likely you are to experience dryness and itchiness, says Dr. Perez.
Solution: Wear your eyeglasses whenever possible.
“We see a lot of people who work a ton of hours,” he says. “One of the questions I like to ask is, ‘How many hours are you wearing your contacts?’ The average is 12 to 14 hours, but sometimes people who work long hours wear them for 16 or 18 hours.”
Ideally, says Dr. Perez, you should take your contacts out when you arrive home from work and put on a pair of eyeglasses in the hours before you go to bed. Better yet, try to avoid wearing your contacts on the weekends—or at least on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Every little bit helps.
Solution #3: Give Your Contact Lenses a Daily Rubdown
If you’re just popping your lenses into a bath of solution overnight, you may not be removing all of the microorganisms that can accumulate onto the lens throughout the day, which could further irritate your eyes.
To really make sure your contacts are clean, says Dr. Perez, put a few drops of multipurpose solution on your palm and gently rub the lens back and forth with your index finger—like a mini-massage for your lenses.
“That mechanical rubbing of the lenses is going to break off the deposits on the plastic,” he says. “I think a lot people just take their contacts out and put them in the case. They don’t put it through the process of mechanically cleaning that contact lens.”
If you’re worried about scratching or tearing your lenses (maybe you have very dry, rough hands) or simply don’t want to change your habits, Dr. Perez says another option is to buy a hydrogen peroxide disinfecting solution (such as Clear Care) that neutralizes harmful bacteria and other germs that can reside on the lenses—without rubbing.
Be sure to follow the package directions carefully. These solutions need at least six hours to work.
Solution #4: Don’t Doze Off in Your Contact Lenses
About 30% of adults sleep or nap with their contacts in, according to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The problem: Sleeping in your contacts starves the eye of its ever-important supply of oxygen, which then increases the symptoms of dryness—not to mention the likelihood of serious eye infections, says Dr. Perez.
“The majority of dry eye cases that I see are people who are sleeping in their contacts,” he says. “You’re just setting yourself up for big problems when you do that.”
People who sleep in their contacts also aren’t cleaning their lenses on a regular basis, he says. Plus, they’re probably leaving them in their eyes for too long.
“If you’re in a two-week contact lens, but you’re wearing it for a month or a month and a half, which a lot of people do,” he says, “that contact lens interacts with the environment and starts to degrade and break down over time, which can cause the dryness symptoms to increase.”
Solution #5: Switch to Single-Use Contact Lenses
If you’re the type who falls asleep in your contacts—or who doesn’t clean them nearly as often as you should—you might want to change your prescription from a biweekly or monthly contact lens (lenses that are changed every two weeks or once a month) to a daily contact lens (which are changed once a day).
Although these lenses have a lower Dk value (and therefore allow less oxygen into the eye), they don’t accumulate as many irritants and other harmful bacteria as longer-lasting contacts, he says.
“For patients who are having some chronic dryness, a daily lens is a doctor’s go-to,” says Dr. Perez. “It seems to help quite a bit.”
Solution #6: Use Artificial Tears
Certain eye drops called artificial tears can help keep your eyes moist, which helps ward off dryness and itchiness. They’re particularly good for people who may not be able to wear their contacts for as long as other people, he says.
“If someone can only wear their contacts for a few hours before the dryness is too much, I tell them to use artificial tears,” he explains. The drops tend to help them wear their lenses for longer periods of time while also minimizing some of the discomfort they might be feeling.
Dr. Perez cautions that many artificial tears have preservatives in them, and if you use them excessively, they can irritate the eye. “I generally counsel patients that if they are using them more than a handful of times per day, then they should switch to preservative-free artificial tears,” he says.
There are lots of options on store shelves, so ask your eye doctor to recommend one that’s right for you. The most important thing is to check the label to make sure the product you choose is safe for contact lenses.
Solution #7: Blink More and Blink Better
Blinking delivers the all-important tears that your eyes need to stay healthy, says Dr. Perez. Problem is, if you tend to stare at a screen all day (your phone counts, too), you may not be blinking nearly as often or thoroughly as you should be.
And yes, there is, in fact, a right and wrong way to blink. If your eyelids don’t touch with each blink, the tear film isn’t fully refreshed.
“I see a lot of people doing half blinks, where they don’t blink all the way,” he says. “Doing a complete, full blink can go a long way.”
Granted, it can be hard to judge your own blinking, but one trick that can help if you work at a computer—or if your job requires you to focus on one target for a lengthy time—is to take a blinking break a few times a day:
- Stop what you’re doing
- Close your eyes for 5 seconds
- With eyes closed, squeeze your eyelids together
- Open your eyes and repeat five times.