Can Wearing Contacts Give You Dry Eyes and What Should Be Done If So?

One of the most common issues associated with contact lens wear is dry eye syndrome. Dry eye syndrome occurs when the eyes do not produce enough tears or when the tears evaporate too quickly. This can lead to discomfort, irritation, and even vision problems if left untreated. Many contact lens wearers experience dry eyes to some degree, as the lenses themselves can interfere with the eye’s natural tear production and tear film dynamics.

Wearing contact lenses can contribute to dry eyes through various mechanisms. The lenses can reduce the amount of oxygen that reaches the cornea, disrupt the tear film stability, and allow for the buildup of debris or protein deposits, all of which can exacerbate dry eye symptoms.

While dry eyes from contact lens wear can be frustrating, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate this issue and improve comfort. This article will explore the potential causes of dry eyes related to contact lens wear, the symptoms to watch for, and various prevention and treatment strategies to alleviate dry eye discomfort.

How Contact Lenses Can Aggravate Dry Eyes

There are a few ways in which wearing contact lenses can contribute to or exacerbate dry eye symptoms. Understanding these mechanisms can help wearers take preventative measures and address the issue more effectively.

A. Reduced oxygen transmission to the cornea

The cornea, the clear front part of the eye, requires an adequate supply of oxygen to function properly. Contact lenses, particularly those made of older materials like hydrogel, can act as a barrier that reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the cornea. This oxygen deprivation can lead to corneal swelling and irritation, which can disrupt the tear film and cause dry eye symptoms.

B. Disruption of the tear film

The tear film is a complex layer of mucus, water, and lipids (oils) that coats the surface of the eye. This film is essential for maintaining lubrication, preventing evaporation, and providing a smooth optical surface for clear vision. Contact lenses can interfere with the normal production and distribution of the tear film, leading to an unstable or deficient tear layer, which contributes to dry eye.

C. Buildup of debris and protein deposits

Over time, contact lenses can accumulate deposits of proteins, lipids, and other debris from the tear film and environment. These deposits can roughen the lens surface, causing irritation and disrupting the tear film. They can also harbor bacteria, increasing the risk of eye infections.

D. Allergic reactions or sensitivity to contact lens materials

Some individuals may have allergic reactions or sensitivities to the materials used in contact lens manufacturing, such as certain polymers or preservatives in lens solutions. These reactions can trigger inflammation, redness, and dry eye symptoms.

While modern contact lens materials and designs have improved oxygen permeability and reduced some of these issues, the potential for dry eye problems persists, especially with improper lens wear, poor hygiene, or underlying eye conditions. Addressing these contributing factors can help minimize dry eye discomfort for contact lens wearers.

Symptoms of Dry Eyes from Contact Lens Wear

If you experience dry eyes while wearing contact lenses, you may notice one or more of the following symptoms:

A. Burning, stinging, or scratchy sensation

One of the most common complaints from contact lens wearers with dry eyes is a burning, stinging, or scratchy feeling in the eyes. This discomfort can range from mild to severe and may worsen as the day progresses.

B. Redness

Dry eyes can cause inflammation and irritation, leading to redness of the whites of the eyes (sclera) or the inside of the eyelids. This redness may be accompanied by a feeling of grittiness or a foreign body sensation.

C. Blurred vision

The tear film plays a crucial role in maintaining clear vision by providing a smooth optical surface over the cornea. When the tear film is disrupted by dry eyes, it can lead to fluctuating or blurred vision, especially toward the end of the day or after prolonged contact lens wear.

D. Increased eye discomfort throughout the day

Many contact lens wearers with dry eyes report that their discomfort worsens as the day goes on. This is often due to the natural fluctuations in tear production and the buildup of debris or protein deposits on the lenses over time.

Other potential symptoms of dry eyes from contact lens wear include:

  • Light sensitivity
  • Difficulty wearing lenses for as long as usual
  • Excessive tearing or watery eyes (the body’s attempt to compensate for dryness)
  • Stringy discharge or mucus around the eyes

Note that these symptoms can vary in severity from person to person and may depend on factors such as the type of contact lenses worn, the duration of wear, and any underlying eye conditions. If you experience persistent or severe dry eye symptoms, it’s recommended to consult with your eye care professional for proper evaluation and treatment.

Prevention and Treatment Strategies

While dry eyes can be a frustrating side effect of contact lens wear, there are several strategies that can help prevent or alleviate this issue. Addressing the underlying causes and taking proactive measures can improve comfort and maintain healthy eye function.

A. Using proper contact lens hygiene and replacement schedule

One of the most effective ways to prevent dry eyes from contact lens wear is to follow proper lens hygiene and replacement guidelines. Replace your lenses as recommended by the manufacturer or your eye care professional, and never sleep in lenses unless they are specifically approved for overnight wear. Proper cleaning and disinfection of lenses can also help reduce the buildup of deposits that can contribute to dryness.

B. Considering different contact lens materials (e.g., silicone hydrogels)

Advances in contact lens technology have led to the development of materials with better oxygen permeability and moisture retention. Silicone hydrogel lenses, for example, allow more oxygen to reach the cornea and can help minimize dryness. Your eye care professional can recommend lens options that may be better suited for your specific needs.

C. Using rewetting drops or artificial tears

Over-the-counter rewetting drops or artificial tears can provide temporary relief from dry eye symptoms by replenishing the tear film and lubricating the eyes. Look for preservative-free formulations, as some preservatives can further exacerbate dryness. Use these products as needed throughout the day, but be aware that overuse can lead to additional irritation.

D. Taking breaks from contact lens wear

Sometimes, the best solution for dry eyes is to give your eyes a break from contact lens wear. Consider wearing your glasses for part of the day or on days when you don’t need to wear contacts. This allows your eyes to rest and produce their natural tears without interference from the lenses.

E. Adjusting environmental factors (e.g., humidity, air flow)

Dry environments, such as air-conditioned or heated rooms, can contribute to tear evaporation and exacerbate dry eye symptoms. Using a humidifier or adjusting airflow can help maintain a more comfortable environment for your eyes.

F. Consulting an eye care professional for severe or persistent cases

If dry eye symptoms persist despite trying these preventive measures, or if you experience severe discomfort, it’s important to consult with your eye care professional. They may recommend prescription eye drops, punctal plugs (to reduce tear drainage), or other treatments depending on the underlying cause and severity of your condition.

Addressing dry eyes from contact lens wear often involves a combination of strategies tailored to individual needs. Regular check-ups and open communication with your eye care provider can help ensure optimal eye health and comfort while wearing contact lenses.

The Best Contact Lens Choices For Dry Eyes

For contact lens wearers who struggle with dry eye symptoms, choosing the right type of lenses can make a significant difference in comfort and eye health.

A. Silicone Hydrogel Lenses

Silicone hydrogel contact lenses are often recommended for dry eye patients because of their high oxygen permeability. These lenses allow more oxygen to pass through to the cornea, which can help prevent swelling and irritation that can exacerbate dryness. Popular silicone hydrogel lens brands include Acuvue Oasys, Air Optix Aqua, and Biofinity.

B. Daily Disposable Lenses

Daily disposable lenses are replaced every day, which can help reduce the buildup of proteins, lipids, and other debris that can cause dryness and discomfort over time. Since they are frequently replaced, there is less opportunity for deposits to accumulate. Popular daily disposable options for dry eyes include Acuvue Oasys 1-Day and Dailies AquaComfort Plus.

C. Water Gradient Lenses

Some newer lens materials feature a water gradient design, with higher water content at the center tapering to lower water content at the edge. This design aims to provide moisture where needed most while maintaining stability. An example is the Bausch & Lomb Ultra lens.