Mar 5th 2024

Contact Lenses & Swimming: A Clear-Eyed Perspective

Contact Lenses & Swimming: A Clear-Eyed Perspective

In today's world where clarity of vision is paramount, contact lenses have emerged as a solution for millions. They offer a discreet, comfortable, and convenient alternative to glasses. But what happens when these lens wearers want to indulge in one of the summer's most beloved activities– Swimming? Let's dive in.

Risks of Swimming with Contact Lenses

Swimming with contact lenses exposes the eyes to a plethora of microorganisms, with Acanthamoeba keratitis being one of the most feared. This amoeba thrives in various water sources, from the chlorinated waters of swimming pools to the natural reservoirs of lakes and rivers.

While the infection remains rare, its consequences can be devastating, leading to severe pain, vision impairment, and in extreme cases, blindness. The contact lens acts as a trap, allowing these microorganisms to adhere to its surface and then transfer to the cornea. Over time, this can lead to inflammation and a painful infection that requires prompt medical attention.

Chemical Irritation:
While chlorine plays a vital role in sanitizing pools, it's not always friendly to the eyes – especially for contact lens wearers. Chlorine can bind to the lens, causing it to alter its shape and reduce its permeability. This reaction can lead to dryness, itching, and a burning sensation.

Moreover, the chemical interaction can produce a layer of film on the lens, making vision foggy. Swimmers might also experience a stinging sensation, especially when opening their eyes underwater. It's essential to understand that while chlorine is a primary irritant, other pool chemicals and pH imbalances can also contribute to discomfort.

Lens Displacement:
Imagine diving into a pool and coming out of the water only to emerge with compromised vision because a lens has been dislodged. The sheer force of water combined with sudden movement can cause contact lenses to shift from their position, or worse, get flushed out. This displacement not only affects vision but also increases the risk of the lens getting trapped behind the eye or scratching the cornea.

For those involved in water sports or activities that require underwater maneuvers, the risk is even higher. Losing a lens in a public pool or open water can also be a costly inconvenience, especially for those using specialized or prescription lenses.

Water Absorption:
Contact lenses, especially soft ones, are designed to retain moisture to provide comfort and maintain eye health. However, this feature can be a double-edged sword when swimming. As the lens absorbs water, it can expand and change shape, leading to an improper fit. This distortion not only causes blurred vision but can also make the lens uncomfortable to wear.

In some cases, the lens might fold onto itself or even stick to the eye, making removal challenging. Furthermore, the absorbed water, especially from untreated sources, can introduce contaminants and pathogens, increasing the risk of infections.

Types of Contact Lenses and Their Suitability for Swimming

Soft Lenses:
Soft contact lenses are made primarily from gel-like, water-containing plastics called hydrogels, and have become the go-to choice for many due to their immediate comfort and adaptability to the eye's shape. However, this very feature that makes them comfortable also makes them vulnerable in aquatic environments. Their porous nature allows them to absorb not only tears but also water from external sources.

When swimming, this means they can soak up pool, sea, or lake water, along with any contaminants or microorganisms that are present. This absorption can lead to lens swelling, blurred vision, and an increased risk of eye infections. Moreover, the lens's flexibility, though usually an advantage, can become a disadvantage in water, making it more likely to fold or twist while swimming.

Rigid Gas Permeable Lenses:
Rigid Gas Permeable (RGP) lenses, as the name suggests, are more rigid than their soft counterparts. Made of a firmer material, they maintain their shape better and offer sharp vision. Their non-porous nature means they are less likely to absorb water or the harmful pathogens that might be in them. However, this rigidity also means they don't conform to the eye's shape as well as soft lenses.

When faced with the force of water, especially during activities like diving or water sports, RGP lenses can easily pop out. This can be particularly problematic in open water or large public pools, where retrieving a lost lens is nearly impossible. Additionally, for those unaccustomed to RGPs, there might be an initial discomfort or a longer adaptation period.

Daily Disposable Lenses:
Emerging as a convenient choice for many, daily disposable lenses like the DAILIES TOTAL1 and Precision1 offer a fresh pair every day, eliminating the need for daily cleaning and reducing the buildup of deposits. For swimmers, these lenses present a somewhat safer option. Since they're designed for single-day use, wearers can simply discard them after swimming, ensuring that any contaminants from the water don't linger and pose a risk for infections later on.

However, it's essential to note that while the post-swim risks are reduced, the in-swim risks, like lens displacement, still remain. If a lens gets dislodged in the water, it's not just an inconvenience but also an added cost.

Precautions to Take if Swimming with Contact Lenses

Use of Waterproof Goggles:
Waterproof goggles serve as a protective barrier between the eyes and the surrounding water. By wearing them, contact lens users can significantly reduce the risk of their lenses coming into direct contact with potentially harmful waterborne contaminants.

Moreover, goggles provide a physical shield, preventing the force of the water from dislodging the lenses during dives or rapid movements. Investing in a good pair that fits snugly to the eye and doesn't allow water to seep underneath the lens can make a world of difference for those who wish to swim with their lenses on.

Avoiding Rubbing Eyes:
The instinctual act of rubbing one's eyes when they feel irritated can be detrimental in a watery environment. Not only can this action displace or even remove the contact lens, but it can also introduce contaminants trapped on the hands into the eyes. It's essential to be conscious of this habit and refrain from touching the eyes, especially when they're wet. If irritation persists, it's better to exit the water and address the issue in a more sanitary environment.

Limiting Underwater Time:
Every moment contact lenses are submerged increases the risk of complications. By limiting the duration and frequency of underwater activities, lens wearers can reduce the chances of water absorption and exposure to harmful agents. It's especially crucial to avoid opening eyes underwater in natural bodies of water, where the risk of contamination is even higher.

Post-Swimming Care for Contact Lens Wearers

Immediate Lens Removal
Once out of the water, it's imperative to remove the contact lenses as soon as possible. Doing so minimizes the time contaminants have to interact with the eyes. Even if there is no immediate discomfort, harmful microorganisms can linger on the lens surface, posing a risk for later infections. Therefore, it is crucial that the lens is always removed after swimming.

Cleaning and Disinfecting
After removal, lenses should undergo a rigorous cleaning process. Using a recommended disinfecting solution, lenses should be gently rubbed and rinsed to ensure all potential contaminants are removed. This cleaning process is crucial, even for those who use daily disposables and plan to discard them after swimming.

Eye Irritation Solutions
Post-swimming eye irritation can be alleviated using lubricating eye drops. These drops can help flush out any residual contaminants and soothe the eyes. If redness, pain, or irritation persists, it's essential to consult an eye care professional promptly.

Alternatives to Wearing Contact Lenses While Swimming

Prescription Goggles:
A game-changer for many swimmers, as prescription goggles offer the clarity of vision contact lenses provide without the associated risks. They're specially designed to match the wearer's prescription, ensuring clear underwater vision. With the added benefit of UV protection in many models, these are an excellent investment for regular swimmers.

LASIK Surgery:
For those who swim frequently and are looking for a long-term solution, LASIK surgery might be the answer. This procedure reshapes the cornea, often eliminating the need for corrective lenses. Post-surgery, individuals can enjoy clear vision both in and out of the water without the hassles of contact lenses.

Daily Wear Glasses:
While they might not be the most convenient option for active swimmers, glasses remain the safest option for those lounging by the pool or beach. Many sunglasses are now available with individualized prescriptions. With no direct contact with the eyes, there are no risks of waterborne contaminants causing infections. For those who prefer to keep their eyes dry but still want to enjoy the view, glasses are the way to go.

The Bottom Line

Swimming with contact lenses comes with its set of challenges and risks. However, with the right precautions, these risks can be mitigated. The key is to prioritize eye health and safety while having fun. After all, clear vision is an important part of life, and it's our responsibility to safeguard it, whether in the water or out.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I swim with contact lenses in my eyes?

It's generally not recommended to swim with contact lenses in your eyes due to the risk of waterborne contaminants and infections.

What are the risks of swimming with contact lenses?

Swimming with contact lenses can increase the risk of eye infections, irritation, and lens dislodgment due to water exposure, especially in pools, lakes, or hot tubs.

Are there specific types of contact lenses designed for swimming?

No; however, there are prescription swim goggles available, which can help you see clearly underwater without the need for contact lenses.

Can I wear daily disposable contact lenses for swimming?

While daily disposable lenses are less risky for swimming since they can be discarded afterwards, it is still not recommended.

How should I protect my eyes while swimming if I need vision correction?

Consider wearing prescription swim goggles or explore other alternatives like prescription snorkel masks for underwater activities.

What should I do if water gets into my eyes while wearing contact lenses?

If water enters your eyes with contact lenses in, remove the lenses immediately, discard them, and thoroughly rinse your eyes with a solution.

How can I reduce the risk of eye infections when swimming with contacts?

To minimize the risk of infections, use daily disposable lenses for swimming, avoid wearing lenses in hot tubs, wear swim goggles, and follow proper lens care and hygiene.

Are there over-the-counter eye drops that can help reduce the risk of irritation while swimming with contacts?

There are eye drops designed to alleviate dryness and discomfort while wearing contact lenses, but they do not replace the need for proper precautions and lens care when swimming.

What are some general tips for maintaining eye safety while swimming with or without contact lenses?

Wear swim goggles to protect your eyes, avoid opening your eyes underwater, shower and rinse your eyes thoroughly after swimming, and never swim with lenses in hot tubs or untreated water sources

See Clearly
Alaesha Gaedke
Alaesha Gaedke

Alaesha Gaedke holds a M.B.A. from Franklin University Switzerland, and a B.A. in Public Relations from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. With her passion for the MedTech industry, her work explores the complexities of medical device technology; bridging the gap between the science behind Medical Devices and the audience for which they're designed for. Her work has been published in regulatory marketing material across Europe and the U.S.

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