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Contact lenses are thin, clear discs that are placed onto the outer layer of your eye (cornea).

Like eyeglasses, contact lenses work to correct your vision. The National Eye Institute estimates that 45 million Americans wear contact lenses.

When you wear contacts, there are some important things to know — like always keeping them away from water. This means that you can’t wear them in the shower.

Continue reading below as we discuss why it’s not okay to wear your contacts in the shower, as well as other best practices to follow.

People that wear contacts are at a higher risk of keratitis, a condition where your cornea becomes inflamed. If keratitis isn’t treated promptly, vision loss can occur.

Microbial keratitis is a specific type of keratitis where germs enter the cornea and cause an eye infection.

The germs that can cause these infections are found in various water sources — including the tap water that you shower and bathe in.

Exposing your contacts to water can cause them to warp or stick to your eye. This can potentially lead to scratches in your cornea (corneal abrasion).

These scratches can sometimes lead to a non-infectious form of keratitis. However, they can also allow germs that are present in non-sterile water to enter the cornea and establish an infection.

What types of germs cause microbial keratitis?

A variety of germs can cause microbial keratitis. One to be particularly aware of in relation to water is a type of parasitic keratitis that’s caused by Acanthamoeba.

Acanthamoeba is a type of amoeba that can be found in a variety of water sources. This includes (but isn’t limited to) tap water, well water, and lake water.

Acanthamoeba keratitis can be very serious, potentially leading to vision loss or the need for a corneal transplant.

It can also be hard to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), treatment for this type of keratitis can last a year or longer.

Other types of germs that may cause microbial keratitis and can potentially be found in some water sources include:

  • Bacteria. Bacterial keratitis can be caused by several types of bacteria, including Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus species.
  • Viruses. Viruses that can cause keratitis include herpes simplex virus (HSV), varicella zoster virus (VZV), and adenovirus.
  • Fungi. Fungal keratitis can be caused by infection by Aspergillus, Fusarium, and Candida species.

Fast facts about contact lenses and water

Let’s look at what recent research says about contacts and water exposure:

  • A small 2020 case-control study found that showering with contacts was the greatest hygiene-related risk factor for developing microbial keratitis.
  • A 2017 report from a research group based at the CDC looked at different risk behaviors of contact lens wearers in different age groups. Swimming in contacts was reported with a similar prevalence across all age groups.
  • A survey study from 2017 also explored risk behaviors in contact lens wearers. Of the 1,141 adults surveyed, it was found that most of the respondents regularly exposed their contacts to water in some way.
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Generally speaking, the symptoms of keratitis are similar across different causes. Some signs that you may have keratitis include:

Even if you haven’t exposed your contacts to water, it’s important that you receive prompt treatment if you suspect that you have keratitis.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of keratitis, do the following:

  1. Remove your contacts. Carefully take your contacts out and don’t put them back in. Use eyeglasses if you need vision correction while you seek treatment.
  2. Call your doctor. You’ll need to see your doctor as soon as you can so that they can determine the cause of your symptoms and begin treatment.
  3. Bring your contacts with you. Examining the contacts that you were wearing can help your doctor work out what’s causing your condition.

It’s important to follow best practices for wearing contacts in order to avoid things like conjunctivitis, corneal abrasions, or keratitis.

  • Avoid water. Take steps to keep your contacts away from water. This includes:
    • removing your contacts before showering, bathing, or swimming
    • not storing your contacts in water
    • throwing away or disinfecting contacts that have touched water
  • Use clean hands. Germs can be present on dirty hands, so always wash your hands before touching your contacts.
  • Follow product instructions. When cleaning or disinfecting your contacts, always carefully follow any product instructions.
  • Store contacts properly. Make sure to only store your contacts in contact lens solution. When storing contacts, always use fresh solution. Don’t “top off” solution that’s already in the case.
  • Wear contacts for the proper length of time. Avoid wearing your contacts for longer than the recommended time period.
  • Don’t sleep in your contacts. Avoid going to sleep while wearing your contacts unless your doctor says that it’s okay to do so.
  • Replace your case. Aim to replace your storage case every 3 months.
  • Remove contacts, if necessary. If you find that your contacts are causing you discomfort or eye irritation, remove them and contact your doctor. Also, don’t use any contact lens that appears damaged.
  • Have eyeglasses on hand. Make sure that you have an up-to-date pair of eyeglasses for when you’re not wearing your contacts.

If you wear contacts, it’s important to keep them away from water. Water sources, including tap water, can contain germs that can cause a potentially serious eye infection called keratitis.

It’s always important to follow best practices for wearing, cleaning, and storage of contacts.

If you’re experiencing symptoms like eye pain, discharge, or sensitivity to light, remove your contacts and talk with your doctor as soon as possible.