The closest medical science gets to a story of someone who never took out their contact lenses—ever—is the one about the woman who was walking around with 27 contact lenses in her eye without even realizing it. This true story was recently told in the British Medical Journal by the three clinicians who discovered the blueish clump of stuck-together lenses in the woman’s eye while they were preparing her for cataract surgery (which was completely unrelated to the woman’s contact lens fail).
“None of us has ever seen this before,” one of the clinicians, Rupal Morjaria, a specialist trainee ophthalmologist, told Optometry Today. In fact, Dr. Morjaria and her co-authors chose to write about the case because they thought it was important to inform other clinicians that it is actually possible for someone to lose multiple contact lenses in their eyes without experiencing immediate symptoms. And that’s important to know because if you leave your contacts lenses in your eyes long enough, you are bound to run into problems eventually, says Christopher Quinn, OD, President of the American Optometric Association.
Just by sleeping in your contact lenses, you’re running the risk of getting an eye infection, and this is true even if your lenses have been approved for continuous overnight use. Some eye infections can be seriously debilitating, and others can cause blindness. As Dr. Quinn points out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that about 25 percent of all eye infections are caused by “modifiable factors such as sleeping in lenses or wearing lenses for longer periods than prescribed.”
What’s happening, Dr. Quinn explains, is that your eyes need oxygen to stay healthy. When you leave your contacts in for an extended period of time, your eyeballs don’t get the oxygen they need. That can lead to swelling of the cornea, which can lead to a corneal abrasion, and that’s one way that bacteria can get in, causing infection. Sleeping in contact lenses also increases the risk of corneal ulcer—a painful open sore on the clear front surface of the eye that can cause loss of vision and even blindness. In addition, the longer you keep your contact lenses in, the more bacteria, debris, and protein accumulates on them, and these accumulations can cause immune issues, such as giant papillary conjunctivitis, where your eyelids get myriad little bumps on them. Eventually, you can become intolerant to wearing contact lenses altogether.
“In general, eyes need periods of rest,” Dr. Quinn says, “so patients need to make sure they give them that break.” Sleep provides a perfect opportunity for that. Plus, if you don’t sleep in your lenses, that virtually eliminates the chance that you’ll wake up and put in another pair of lenses on top of the first one, as the woman with the 27 contacts buildup must have done on many occasions.
Don’t miss the other contact lens mistakes you could be making, and other secrets your eye doctor won’t necessarily tell you.