What Problems Can Contact Lenses Cause?

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on April 28, 2023
5 min read

Contact lenses can make your life a lot easier -- no more glasses to scratch, step on, or lose. But using contacts safely does take some effort. It’s a little too easy to skip cleaning them, jump into the pool with them on, or fall asleep before you take them out, and any of those things can cause problems.
If you notice any issues, take out your contact lenses and see your doctor right away. Contact problems are easier to solve the sooner you get help.

Many eye problems -- from minor dry eye to more serious infections -- can have similar symptoms. So err on the side of caution and see your doctor if you have:

  • Blurred vision
  • Burning, itching, stinging, or pain in your eye
  • Eye discharge
  • Feeling of sand or grit in your eye
  • Sensitivity to light
  • More tears than usual or other fluid coming from your eyes
  • Redness in your eye

Infections: Most eye infections linked to contact lenses are caused by bacteria, but they can be caused by other kinds of germs as well. Infections can lead to swelling in your cornea -- the front surface of your eye. If they’re not treated, they can cause deep scarring and vision loss. Usually, your doctor will prescribe antibiotic eye drops to kill germs, and that will take care of it. An infection caused by fungus or an amoeba can be severe and hard to treat and could lead to months of treatment and possible surgery. 

Hypoxia: Your cornea gets most of its oxygen directly from the air. But your contact lens sits on top of the cornea and may block it from getting the oxygen it needs, a condition called hypoxia. When that happens, your cornea may swell, and that can lead to more serious problems, such as cloudy vision. Hypoxia is more common for people who use extended-wear contact lenses -- or people who sleep with their contacts in.

Your doctor probably will recommend that you switch to lenses that let more oxygen in. They also may give you a steroid you’ll put into your eyes to ease swelling and keep the condition from getting worse.

Conjunctivitis: Also called pinkeye, this causes swelling and redness on your eyelid. There are a few different types, but with contacts, you’re most likely to get one called giant papillary conjunctivitis. It’s actually a kind of allergic reaction -- your body sees the contact as something that shouldn’t be there and tries to fight it.

If your symptoms are mild, you may not need treatment -- it probably will go away on its own. But if your case is more severe, your doctor may give you a topical steroid or anti-inflammatories to help with your symptoms, and you may need to stop wearing your lenses for a while. Your doctor also may suggest that you get a different type of lens, made out of a different material, or daily disposables that you replace every day or a new type of solution.

Dry eye: Every time you blink, you spread tears across your cornea. This simple action keeps your eyes moist, lowers your chances of infection, and wipes out dirt. If you don’t make enough tears -- or they don’t work as well as they should -- your eyes can get dry and irritated. Wearing contact lenses for many years can play a role in this.

Over-the-counter artificial tears can help -- look for ones that don’t have preservatives because some of them can bother your eyes even more. And if you use these drops while your contact lenses are in, make sure they’re marked safe for contact lenses or don’t have any preservatives. If those don’t work well enough for you, talk with your eye doctor. They can prescribe special eye drops and make other recommendations.

Scratched cornea: Contacts can cause a scratched cornea in a few different ways. For example, you might scrape your cornea with your finger when you’re taking out your contacts. The lens itself can also scratch the cornea. And if you don’t clean your contacts well, dirt can build up on them and scratch it, too.

It’s important to take out the contact lens and see your doctor right away if your eye hurts or feels like there’s grit in it, and is red and tearing. Most of the time, a scratched cornea heals in a day or so, but if it’s not treated, it can lead to infection.

Allergic reactions: You can have an allergic reaction to your contact cleaning solution or, less commonly, to the material in the contact lens itself. In that case, you’ll need to try another solution or different contacts.

Get the right ones. Your contact lens should fit the shape and size of your eye. And different types of lenses have qualities that may be better or worse for your eyes. For example, if you get hypoxia, a contact lens that lets in more air might be best for you. Sometimes, you might have to try a few to find the right ones. Also, ask your doctor whether switching to daily disposable lenses might help in your case.

Take good care of them. Make sure to follow your doctor’s advice when you clean your lenses. For routine care, remember to:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water and dry them well before touching your contacts.
  • Follow directions closely to clean and disinfect your lenses.
  • Replace your contacts as often as your doctor tells you to.
  • Get a new storage case for your lenses as directed -- it’s usually best to replace it every 3 months.

You might be tempted to try to save a little money when cleaning your contacts, but that can cost you in the long run. It doesn’t pay to cut corners with your eye health. When using contact solution:

  • Don’t top it off. Dump out whatever’s in your lens case and refill it with fresh solution.
  • Only use solution that’s made for your type of lenses. Don’t use tap water, distilled water, or anything else on your lenses or in the case.
  • When you’re on the go, don’t pour solution into a travel-size container -- it can lead to infection. Buy a travel-size bottle of solution instead.

And don’t sleep, shower, or swim with your contacts in. When you sleep with them in, your eyes don’t get the oxygen they need, which can lead to hypoxia. And pools, hot tubs, lakes, oceans, and tap water all have bacteria that could cause infections.