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Contacts are considered a safe and effective medical device that are placed in the eye to improve vision and correct refractive errors. They can sometimes cause burning or irritation, however.
Common causes of contact problems can simply be related to damaged or improperly fit contacts or an allergic reaction to the contact lens cleaning solution. Common allergens like dust and pollen can collect underneath contact lenses and cause the eyes to be irritated, especially if you suffer from allergies. (Learn More)
Almost everyone who wears contacts — 99 percent, according to a survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — engages in at least one poor hygiene behavior that raises the risk for inflammation or eye infection.
Not washing your hands before inserting contacts or not cleaning or storing your contacts as directed can cause bacteria to build up on the lenses. This can lead to a potential eye infection, which then leads to eye irritation and burning. Corneal swelling and dry eyes can be exacerbated by contacts and may indicate an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed. (Learn More)
If your eyes burn or become irritated after putting in contacts, take them out and use glasses. (Learn More) If the irritation doesn't improve or persists, seek medical attention.
You can help to minimize potential eye irritation and contact problems by taking care of the lenses, using them as directed, and following proper hygienic techniques. Contact problems can often be overcome by talking with your eye doctor and potentially changing your prescription, proper contact care, and treatment of any eye-related medical issues. (Learn More)
Causes of Burning and Irritation From Contacts
Per the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), the following are common causes of eye irritation and burning after inserting contacts into your eyes:
- Lenses that don't fit properly
- Damaged contacts
- Allergy to the contact lens cleaning or storage solution
- Eye infection
- Swelling of the cornea
- Sensitivity to tear protein deposits in the lenses
Seasonal allergies or allergies to common things, such as dust or pollen, can lead to burning eyes and irritation. When you wear contacts, these allergens can become trapped under the lens and lead to further irritation and redness.
Sometimes, if your eyes burn and become irritated after putting in contacts, it can be related to an underlying medical issue.
Related Medical Issues
The American Optometric Association (AOA) reports that six out of every seven people who wear contacts do at least one thing that increases their risk for eye infection. Close to half (45 percent) of adult contact lens wearers continue wearing contacts beyond their shelf-life and don't replace them on the recommended schedule.
Contacts are not permanent. They are meant to be disposed of and replaced at regular intervals. Daily disposable contacts are only designed to be worn once, for example. Other contacts may be reused for a set number of days, such as up to a week or a month.
Most contacts are intended for daily use. They are to be taken out and cleaned each night and then stored in a special solution overnight before being placed in the eyes in the morning. Improper cleaning and storage, not washing your hands before touching your eyes or contacts, or wearing your contacts for longer or more uses than directed can raise the odds for an eye infection.
Even wearing contact lenses that are approved for extended wear overnight can elevate the risk for infection. Common eye infections, such as conjunctivitis or pink eye, can be caused by bacterial buildup on the contacts and infect the eyes.
There are about 1 million visits to doctors for eye infections related to the wearing of contacts, The Guardian publishes. Symptoms of an eye infection often include burning and irritated eyes.
Dry eyes can be chronic and the result of poor tear production or a medical condition, such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. AOA reports that dry eyes can also be caused by the long-term use of contacts.
Swelling in the outer layer of the eye, the cornea, can also result in eye irritation and burning sensations that can be exacerbated by contact lens wear. Trauma to the eye, exposure to toxins, ocular surgery, and endothelial disorders such as Fuchs' endothelial dystrophy, which causes endothelial cells to die off, can be common causes of corneal swelling.
Eye irritation and burning may be caused by the contacts, or it may be the result of a medical problem that is being magnified by contact lens wear. Either way, it needs to be addressed and corrected.
Preventing and Taking Care of Contact Problems
If you experience a burning sensation or eye irritation when you put in your contacts or at any point throughout the day, you should take them out immediately. You may have debris underneath the lenses and flushing your eyes can help remove it. Try washing your contacts thoroughly and inspecting them for damage before putting them back in.
You will need to let your eyes rest for a bit to reduce the irritation. It is often best to switch to eyeglasses in the meantime.
If your contacts continue to irritate you, consider changing them out. They may be damaged or have bacterial buildup. Change your cleaning and storage solutions regularly too.
If you are using a new cleaning or storage solution, you may be experiencing an allergic reaction to the chemicals and may need to try a different type or brand. The same can be true of the contacts themselves. If contacts aren't properly fitted to your eyes, they can cause burning and irritation. Your eye doctor can help you obtain the right fit and decide if you need to switch contact types or brands. Only wear contacts that have been fitted to you and are prescribed to you directly.
Use proper hand-washing and hygiene techniques when handling your contacts. Follow the care and usage guide provided by your eye care professional. Use the solution designed for your contact brand and type.
Only use your contacts for as long as directed. Clean and store them properly and replace them on the recommended schedule. This can help to prevent bacterial buildup and possible eye irritations.
If you suffer from chronic dry eyes or allergies, there are some brands or types of contacts that may be a better fit than others. Switching from a soft contact lens to a rigid gas-permeable (RGP) lens can help oxygen to flow more freely to and from the eye. This may be better suited for tear production.
It can take a few attempts to find the most comfortable type and brand of contact for you. It is also possible that contacts are not the right vision improvement solution for you. In some cases, laser eye surgery may give you a better long-term solution. Your ophthalmologist can help you determine what the best option will be for your situation.
Fast Facts. (July 2018). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why Do My Eyes Burn After Inserting My Contacts? (February 2015). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Facts and Stats. (August 2017). American Optometric Association.
Healthy Vision and Contact Lenses. (2019). American Optometric Association.
How Safe Are Contact Lenses? (November 2014). The Guardian.
Dry Eye. (2019). American Optometric Association.
A Curious Case of Corneal Edema. (January 2007). American Academy of Ophthalmology.