Why swimming & showering when wearing contact lenses could cause blindness
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
Sorry to sound like a nagging mum but you REALLY need to pay attention to this.
Find out how contact lenses can lead to corneal ulcers, what the symptoms are and what you should do if you think you might have one.
I was sitting on the concourse at Liverpool Street train station in 2019, when my sister told me that she had a corneal ulcer and uveitis and may lose the sight in her right eye.
It’s true that you never forget where you were when you hear something that shakes you to your core.
Whether it’s personal or something that plays out on the world stage.
I was so worried for my sister.
The fact that humans only have two eyes seems woefully inadequate, should something go wrong.
And what was the cause of my sister’s corneal ulcer (also known as keratitis)?
Well, her doctors couldn’t say for sure, but it is likely to have been a bacterial infection, possibly from keeping her contact lenses case too close to her bathroom sink.
Who would have thought it?
Corneal ulcers can also be the result of autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
But more often than not they are the result of an eye infection - whether bacterial, viral or fungal.
And contact lens wearers are particularly at risk - especially if you wear overnight, soft contacts, as they can restrict oxygen reaching your cornea, increasing the risk of infection.
Additionally, scratches or tiny particles on your contact lens can graze your cornea, leaving it vulnerable to bacterial infections.
So, you’d think that the opticians who issue your contact lenses would really hammer this message home, right?
At least in my experience.
As a long-term contact lens wearer, the advice I have been given has been patchy.
For years, I would shower with my lenses in and even go swimming. It wasn’t until I happened by chance to mention swimming to the person who was reviewing my contact lenses, that I discovered that this was a definite no-no.
I said I was surprised; no one had ever mentioned this to me before, in all the years I’d been wearing contacts.
She couldn’t have been clearer in her response. If she could have put a big N. O. on the eye chart, I think she would have.
A couple of months after my sister’s diagnosis, I read an article online about a 20 year-old student who had gone blind as a result of being hit by a freak wave, whilst on holiday in Malta.
Miyako Aiko-Murray lost her vision after contracting Acanthamoeba keratitis, which eventually led to corneal scarring.
Acanthamoeba keratitis can affect anyone but an estimated 85% of cases occur in contact lens wearers.
What can you do to reduce your chances of getting a corneal ulcer?
· Always wash your hands thoroughly before handling your lenses (obvs).
· Store your contact lens case away from tap water – put it in a bathroom cabinet or in another room.
· Disinfect your lenses using proper solution. Do not use TAP WATER!
· Take your lenses out when swimming, showering or bathing.
· Remove lenses before sleeping.
· Change your lenses as instructed, i.e., if they are fortnightly lenses (like mine), dispose of them at the end of the two weeks. I have set a reminder on my phone, since my sister’s experience.
· Regularly change your case. Do not use water (even boiled) to clean it.
What are the symptoms of a corneal ulcer?
Should you develop an ulcer, the key is to act FAST. Go to the accident and emergency department, as it is a medical emergency. It’s better to be safe than sorry – remember you only have two eyes (unless you’re a spider, reading this).
· Sharp, stabbing pain (it has been compared to being stabbed in the eye with a piece of metal)
· The feeling that something is in your eye
· Unusual discharge from your eye
· Watery eyes
· Blurred vision
· Pain when looking at bright lights
· A white spot on your cornea
· Swollen eyelids
My sister’s experience has certainly made me more vigilant.
Previously, I was prone to leaving my lenses in when having a quick shower. Now I realise that spending two minutes of my time to remove them, is better than weeks of pain and worry.
Thankfully my sister is now fully recovered. But she was lucky.
After weeks of being off work and applying eye drops every hour at one point, (including through the night), her eye did get better.
However, during a follow-up appointment with a consultant, he informed her that if the scarring on her cornea was just a fraction closer to the pupil, she would have lost her sight in that eye.
Remember: don’t be laissez-faire when it comes to contact lens care.
Please share this article with any friends or family members who wear lenses.
Disclaimer: although great care has been taken to thoroughly research this article, it has not been reviewed by a medical professional. It is primarily based on the personal experiences. Always seek medical advice.