For contact lens wearers there are two contact lenses most likely to hurt: your first pair of contact lenses and your last pair of contact lenses. The first pair is because of inexperience with inserting and removing contact lenses, and the latter may be due to something called contact lens overwear syndrome (CLOS).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately 41 million people in the United States who wear contact lenses, and most of them will experience eye complications from long-term use at one time or another. In this article, we’ll shed some light on just what contact lens overwear syndrome is, recognizing symptoms, and options for treatment and prevention.

What is Contact Lens Overwear syndrome?

As the name implies, contact lens overwear syndrome is a condition caused when a patient wears contact lenses for longer than is healthy. To understand how this happens in the first place, it helps to understand how contact lenses work with the eye and the unique features of the eye that may set us up for overwear syndrome.

Unlike the rest of the body, the cornea doesn’t have blood vessels to indirectly deliver oxygen to it. Instead, this delicate tissue gets oxygen directly from the air. Clean, new, properly fitted contact lenses are designed to float atop the tear film over the surface of the cornea; the permeable contact lens material allows in the oxygen our eyes need to stay healthy.

When contact lenses are worn for too long, they can become dirty and contaminated and eventually block the oxygen transfer to the eye. They may even erode or damage the corneal epithelium, the transparent skin over the cornea that protects the eye from infection. When these things happen, the contact lens wearer may notice redness, ocular pain, blurry vision, dry eye syndrome and other unpleasant symptoms.

More FAQs about Contact Lens Overwear Syndrome

How do you treat contact lens overwear?

The first step for treating contact lens overwear is to remove the contact lenses and give your eyes a rest until your eye doctor clears you to resume contact lens use. For mild irritation, your ophthalmologist may prescribe soothing eye drops or a treatment to help you produce your own quality tears.

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Severe cases of contact lens overwear syndrome may indicate a dangerous infection or injury that could potentially cause permanent eye damage, even blindness. Any level of blurriness or eye pain should be properly diagnosed and treated by an eye specialist to prevent worsening of symptoms.

Of course, the most reliable way to stop irritation from contact lenses is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. To keep this potentially dangerous condition at bay, follow instructions for contact lens use provided by your eye doctor and the contact lens manufacturer, including:

  • Wear contact lenses only for the wear schedules recommended for the lens types
  • Clean contact lenses in approved solutions at the recommended intervals
  • Wash hands before and after handling contact lenses

To virtually eliminate the risks created by contact lens overwear, switch back to glasses permanently or see if you might be a candidate for permanent vision correction through LASIK or one of several other modern alternatives to permanently correct vision.

What happens if you overwear contact lenses?

Any long-term contact lens wearer can develop contact lens overwear syndrome, or contact lens intolerance (CLI). Prolonged contact lens wear can lead to lens damage or bacterial build-up, which results in decreased oxygen levels to the cornea and/or inspires an immune response every time the contact lens is placed in the eye.

Other times, eyes can develop contact lens overwear syndrome due to sensitivity to the lens materials or to contact lens cleaning solutions. Your ophthalmologist can usually quickly find the cause so you can receive the appropriate treatment. Remove contact lenses immediately and take them with you to your appointment to aid your eye doctor in the diagnosis.

Can contact lens intolerance be cured?

If caught in a timely fashion, contact lens overwear syndrome can be treated by discontinuing contact lens use (switching back to your eyeglass prescription) and using soothing prescription eye drops. In serious cases, treatment may involve topical antibiotics, corticosteroid eye drops or even surgery.

Eye irritation, redness, pain, and inflammation are not normal and should never be ignored. If you suspect contact lens overwear – or have any unusual symptoms – remove your contact lenses and make an appointment with your eye doctor. An ophthalmologist can confirm or dispel a diagnosis of lens intolerance and determine what caused symptoms in the first place. Symptoms of contact lens intolerance can worsen and lead to more severe and vision-threatening complications.

What happens if you wear contact lenses past 30 days?

Long-term use of contact lenses can cause changes in the corneal epithelium, or even lead to the formation of micro cysts. Decreased corneal sensitivity and even vision loss can also occur. Most of these changes are only temporary if contact lens use is discontinued and symptoms are treated.

In most cases, discomfort from contact lenses is caused by overuse, improper lens care and other poor contact lens hygiene:

  • “Topping off” contact lens cleaning solution
  • Storing or rinsing lenses in tap water
  • Wearing lenses against recommendations, such as wearing daily disposable lenses in an extended wear manner
  • Not removing contact lenses before swimming or bathing
  • Sleeping with contact lenses in
  • Wearing damaged or dirty contact lenses
  • Wearing the wrong lens type
  • Improper handwashing before handling contact lenses

Consult your eye doctor for a contact lens replacement if you have engaged in any of these behaviors. He or she will provide quality contact lenses and give you advice on how to properly care for contact lenses. These are the first and most important steps toward avoiding contact lens complications.

How long does it take for your eyes to heal after contact lenses?

Healing from contact lens intolerance depends on the level of damage incurred from overwearing contact lenses. Eyes are resilient and corneas can heal in a matter of days with treatment and rest, as long as patients experiencing symptoms follow an eye doctor’s treatment plan.

Treatment may include reducing your contact lens wearing time, a topical steroid, or addressing storage and cleaning issues.

How do you know if your eyes are rejecting contact lenses?

Eye redness, dryness, blurred vision, a foreign body sensation, and excessive or absent tear flow are just some of the symptoms of contact lens overwear syndrome or contact lens intolerance. Patients who experience a sudden onset of symptoms after inserting contact lenses should confirm this possible diagnosis with an eye doctor.

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Why are my eyes suddenly irritated by contact lenses?

This condition is called contact lens overwear syndrome (CLOS) or contact lens intolerance (CLI). It may seem sudden, buts odds are it’s been brewing for a long time. CLOS/CLI happens when the eye rejects the lens as a foreign body after overexposure to the lens or lens contamination.

Is it good to take a break from contact lenses?

Yes. The cornea is the only part of the body that takes oxygen directly from the air, rather than indirectly via the lungs. So, contact lenses are designed to allow the necessary amount of oxygen to permeate the lens; however, bacteria, oils and dirt can block oxygen flow when contact lenses are worn for too long.

It’s a good idea to give your eyes a break once in a while by leaving out your contact lenses overnight and wearing eyeglasses instead of contact lenses once in a while. A two-week break from contact lenses is usually adequate to give your delicate corneas a reset.

If you have an indication that contact lens intolerance could become a recurring problem, switch back to glasses and make an appointment with an eye care professional. An eye doctor can prescribe healing treatment and give you other tools to keep eyes comfortable.

Can you go blind wearing contact lenses too long?

Contact lens overwear syndrome is just one complication that can occur when contact lenses are worn for too long. Other potential contact lens complications include giant papillary conjunctivitis, corneal edema, distortion, corneal ulcer and more, all of which contribute to greatly increased risks of vision loss.

Giant papillary conjunctivitis is a condition in which small bumps (papillae) form under the eyelid, usually the result of an allergic reaction to the contact lenses themselves. With corneal edema, injury or allergies cause the cornea to swell with fluid. These conditions – along with corneal distortion, ulcers and sores – occur more often with contact lens overuse and can be painful.

When should you stop wearing contact lenses?

Any acute or chronic eye pain, vision disturbance or change in appearance should be taken seriously to protect the delicate eyes from permanent damage. Stop wearing contact lenses and immediately make an appointment with an ophthalmologist if you notice anything unusual with your eyes, including:

  • Dry eyes
  • Itchy, irritated eyes
  • Redness
  • Eye pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Stinging corneal abrasion
  • Foreign body sensation

With your contact lens wear suspended, you can focus on healing and reassessing whether you return to the same lens type or consider new lens materials. Often daily disposable lenses and soft contact lenses with better oxygen permeability are good options.

Today’s lens technology may require less time for successful contact lens care. However, your ophthalmologist can guide you on what lens types are best to help you keep contact lens overwear syndrome from recurring.

How many hours a day should you wear contact lenses?

Any contact lens that’s worn for an excessive period of time, or longer than recommended, can lead to lens wear complications, such as injury or infection. Most people can tolerate wearing contact lenses for up to 16 hours per day. Never wear contact lenses while sleeping.

For extended-wear contact lenses, the FDA recommends removing and cleaning lenses at least once a week. The maximum recommended time for continuous wear is 30 days. Never wear lenses for more than the wear time for which they were designed (for example, never use daily or weekly contact lenses as extended wear lenses).

The Brinton Vision Solution to Contact Lens Overwear Syndrome

Have you experienced irritation or vision disturbances with contact lens use? It could be due to contact lens overwear. Contact lens Brinton Vision for a thorough eye evaluation to find out if you have developed a lens intolerance. Our team will work with you on other ways to correct refractive error, such as LASIK laser eye surgery that can help you greatly improve visual acuity without the discomfort of contact lenses and glasses.

If you’re considering LASIK, take a moment for a quick self-test to see if you might be a candidate for LASIK or one of the six other laser vision correction procedures we offer.