If you wear contact lenses, you’ve probably jumped into the pool while wearing them. After all, taking them out can be a hassle, and your goggles will keep your eyes dry. Besides, it’s not that big of a deal to swim with contact lenses in, right?
Checking the instructions on your lenses may reveal some scary info to make you think otherwise. The FDA has recommended that contacts not be exposed to any type of water, including swimming pools, oceans, and lakes. There is some evidence that swimming with contacts in can in some circumstances lead to eye infections, irritations, and sight-threatening conditions such as corneal ulcers. Though extreme incidents are rare, care should be taken to prevent them from happening, said optometrist William Catt, OD.
“Swimming with contact lenses is considered to be less safe than swimming without contacts,” explained Catt, “but it can be done relatively safely if the necessary precautions are taken.”
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First, consider the body of water you’re swimming in. Bacteria, free-living amoebas, and parasites may be exist in greater numbers within natural bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, and oceans. In these swims, foregoing your contacts for a pair of prescription swim goggles may be a good idea. But pools aren’t necessarily 100% safe. Even in chlorinated water, pathogens can live. “Swimming in a chlorinated pool is generally less risky than swimming in a lake, river, or ocean, though that risk can vary depending on how well the pool chemistry/chlorine levels are maintained,” said Catt.
The most common infection from swimming is via the bacteria Acanthamoeba, which can attach to the contact lens, causing infection and inflammation. Acanthamoeba is found in all bodies of water, even chlorinated swimming pools. Brief exposure to pathogens may be enough to cause infection even without contacts, but contact lenses allow these unwanted invaders to lodge inside the lens and press against the eye, increasing chances of infection and irritation. In rare but serious cases (about 2.5 out of 100,000 contact wearers), the bacteria can can cause an infection in your eye and in some of those infections it can result in serious consequences, like vision loss.
To minimize the risk, Catt said wearing a daily disposable contact lens, as opposed to a traditional two-week or monthly replacement contact, will reduce the likelihood of having an infection occur in the eye. Studies show that the risks of developing a corneal ulcer are much higher with monthly or two-week contact lenses when compared to daily disposables, regardless of whether they are used for swimming.
If you wear daily disposable contacts, another tip is to bring a fresh set to the gym to wear after your swim, or plan to wear your glasses for the rest of the day. Daily disposables should be removed and discarded as soon as possible following swimming, instead of being re-worn.
If traditional monthly or two-week replacement lenses are worn, they should be removed and cleaned after swimming. Catt said a hydrogen peroxide cleaning solution (like ClearCare) will generally clean and sterilize the contacts better overnight than a multipurpose solution like Optifree, BioTrue, or ReNu—though ClearCare should not be used to clean lenses and put them back in your eye; the solution requires a period of time to neutralize or it will cause a severe burning. Swimming with rigid or gas permeable contacts is not advised, as they are highly likely to dislodge while swimming.
Taking the above precautions will greatly reduce your chance of having any issues, and you should be able to swim while seeing clearly. However, if you notice any redness, swelling, or pain in your eye soon after swimming, see your ophthalmologist immediately. Though the symptoms could be caused by simple irritation from the water, even a short delay can lead to longer recovery times or more dire consequences.