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Everything You Need to Know

Contact lens overview

More than 30 million people in the United States wear contact lenses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Many people prefer contacts to eyeglasses because they’re more convenient and they correct your vision without changing your appearance. Usually, you can barely feel that you’re wearing them. 

But if you develop a condition called dry eye syndrome, contact lenses can become uncomfortable. This occurs when your eyes don't produce tears properly or make enough fluid to keep your eyes lubricated and comfortable.

What is dry eye syndrome?

According to the National Eye Institute, almost five million Americans experience dry eye syndrome. Causes can include:

  • damage to the tear glands around the eyes
  • damage to or disease of the skin around the eyes
  • diseases, such as Sjogren’s syndrome and other autoimmune conditions
  • medicines, such as antihistamines, certain antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and birth control pills
  • hormone changes that can occur with menopause
  • dry eye can also be associated with allergies and with aging eyes

Wearing contact lenses for long periods of time can also cause dry eye. According to a study in Optometry & Vision Science, about half of contact lens wearers develop contact lens-related dry eye.

Dry eye may cause pain, burning, or a gritty feeling, as if something is in your eye. Some people experience blurred vision. With dry eye, you may feel especially uncomfortable while wearing your contact lenses.

You don’t have to give up wearing contact lenses if you have dry eye. Treating the cause of dry eye or changing to a different type of lens can help.

Options for dry eyes

Your doctor can help identify the cause of why you have dry eye before starting treatment.

Your doctor may recommend lubricating eye drops if your eyes aren’t producing enough tears. If a medication you’re taking is the cause, you may need to switch. There’s also a procedure to plug the drain system in your eyes so that more moisture stays in your eyes. This procedure may be offered in severe cases.

If the problem is with your lenses, you may have to try a different kind. Here are a few options.

Lens materials

Different types of contact lens materials are available. Soft contact lenses are made of a flexible plastic that allows oxygen to pass through to the eye. Rigid gas-permeable contact lenses are made of a harder material, but they also allow oxygen to reach the eye.

Soft lenses are made of hydrogel, which contain water. There are disposable soft lenses that can be worn for a day and then thrown out. Extended wear soft lenses can be reused for up to 30 days.

Changing your contact lenses daily prevents protein deposits, which can make your eyes feel even drier. If you experience problems with dry eye, you may want to try disposable lenses.

You may also consider switching to a silicone-based hydrogel lens. These types of lenses doesn’t allow water to evaporate as readily as others. They may reduce dry eye better than regular hydrogel contacts. 

Proclear is the only brand of disposable lenses that are FDA-approved to help reduce the sensation of dry eye discomfort. It contains phosphorylcholine, which is supposed to attract water and keep your eyes feeling moist.

Lens water content

Soft contact lenses are categorized by how much water they contain.

High-water content lenses are more likely to cause dry eye than those with low-water content. They tend to send more moisture to the eye when you first put them in, but can dry out faster. You may need to try lenses with different water contents until you find the one that works for you.

Lens size

Most contact lenses measure about 9 millimeters across. They cover just the iris, the colored part of the eye. 

Scleral contact lenses typically measure 15 to 22 millimeters across. They cover part of the white area of the eye, known as the sclera. Scleral lenses are gas-permeable, meaning they let oxygen reach the eye’s surface. Some people report an improvement in symptoms with this type of lens.

A change in solutions

Sometimes the problem is not with your contact lenses, but with the solution you’re using to clean them. Some solutions contain preservatives that can irritate your eyes and leave them dry. Others contain materials that may not be compatible with certain types of soft contact lenses and can cause a reaction. 

Check with your eye doctor. If they think your lens solution may be to blame, try different brands until you find one that works for you.

Care for your contacts

There are a variety of options to help you relieve dry eye.

Switching to a different type of contact lens is a good place to start. Taking care of your lenses is another important step. Keep them clean and change them as recommended. Only wear your lenses for the amount of time your eye doctor prescribes.

Moisten your eyes with rewetting drops before putting in your contact lenses. Use the drops throughout the day so your eyes stay moist. When you’re in a very dry environment, like a heated room during winter, you may need to use drops more often. If your eyes are sensitive, try a preservative-free brand of eye drop.

You may need to temporarily stop wearing your contacts if you’re still having problems after trying different lenses and solutions. Rehydrate your eyes with preservative-free tears for a few days to let your eyes recover. Follow your doctor’s advice before trying the contacts again.

Read This Next

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6 Lifestyle Hacks for Chronic Dry Eye
29 Things Only Someone with Dry Eyes Would Understand
Treatments for Chronic Dry Eye
Switching Dry Eye Treatment: What You Need to Know
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