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Are You Allergic to Contact Lenses?

by Michael Healy
allergic to contacts

Since being introduced in 1994, daily disposable contact lenses have revolutionized vision correction by offering convenience and flexibility to over 45% of the 40 million contact users in the United States.

However, for some, discomfort and eye irritation have raised concerns about the potential of being allergic to contact lenses. Allergic reactions to contact lenses can show up in various ways, impacting comfort, vision, and overall eye health.

If you wear daily disposable contact lenses and have noticed on-going eye discomfort or irritation characterized by dry eye, itching, or increased watering of the eyes, you might wonder if you are allergic to your contact lenses.

This post takes a detailed look at what contact contact lens allergies are, explores their symptoms, potential causes, and diagnosis and shares strategies to help manage discomfort stemming from a contact lens allergy.

Understanding contact lens allergies

While contact lens allergies have been observed in both soft and rigid gas permeable (RGP) lenses, an estimated 85% of allergies occur from soft and disposable contact lenses.

With symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to severe eye inflammation, these contact lens allergies are adverse reactions triggered by the presence of allergens interacting with the eye’s surface, the material of the contact lens, or the solutions used to clean, rinse, or disinfect your contact lenses. 

The most common symptoms associated with contact lens allergies include redness, itching, tearing, burning sensation, blurred vision, and increased sensitivity to light.

Symptoms of contact lens allergies

Like most allergies, an allergic reaction to wearing contact lenses has various symptoms with different intensities experienced among individual contact lens wearers. Common signs of contact lens allergies include:

  • Itching
    Persistent itching or discomfort in the eyes are among the most common symptoms of a contact lens allergy. While itching can be mild, it’s also common to become increasingly worse over time.
  • Redness
    Allergic reactions often cause redness in and around the eyes. The presence of redness is an indication of inflammation of the conjunctiva (the thin clear layer that covers the eye) or surrounding tissues.
  • Watery eyes
    Excessive tearing or watery discharge is another very common symptom associated with contact lens allergies. The eyes may produce tears in response to irritation, as a reaction to the contact lens materials, or as a protective mechanism against allergens.
  • Blurred vision
    Allergic reactions can blur vision temporarily, affecting the wearer’s ability to see clearly through their contact lenses.
  • Discomfort
    Contact lens allergies often cause a persistent feeling of discomfort, often described as a “gritty” sensation in the eyes, making it very challenging to wear lenses comfortably.

Different types of contact lens allergies

  • Contact dermatitis
    This type of allergy occurs when allergens from cosmetics, cleaning solutions, or environmental pollutants come into contact with the skin around the eyes. Common symptoms associated with contact dermatitis include red, itchy, or swollen eyelids, and often resembles eczema or dermatitis.
  • Giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC)
    GPC is a chronic inflammatory condition characterized by the formation of large papillae, or bumps, on the inner surface of the eyelids. It is often associated with prolonged contact lens wear, particularly soft lenses. In addition to these bumps, symptoms of GPC often include itching, mucous discharge, and discomfort when wearing contact lenses.
  • Solution sensitivity
    Some individuals may develop hypersensitivity to the chemicals or preservatives present in certain types of contact lens solutions. Symptoms of solution sensitivity may include redness, stinging, or burning upon lens insertion.

What causes a contact lens allergy?

  • Allergens in lens solutions
    Preservatives like thimerosal and benzalkonium chloride, found in many multipurpose solutions, can trigger allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
  • Protein deposits on lenses
    Protein buildup on contact lenses, especially with extended wear, can serve as a nidus for allergen accumulation, leading to immune-mediated responses.
  • Environmental allergens
    Pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and other airborne allergens can adhere to contact lenses, putting these allergens in direct contact with the eye and causing allergic symptoms upon insertion.
  • Contact lens material
    Some wearers may exhibit sensitivity to specific materials or coatings used in contact lens manufacturing.

Diagnosing a contact lens allergy

While experiencing the above symptoms might be an indication of a contact lens allergy, they also could be a sign of another serious eye health issue. The only surefire way to determine what exactly is causing issues with your eyes is to have a comprehensive eye completed by your eye doctor.

When evaluating for a potential allergy, and to rule out other eye health issues, this eye exam will commonly include:

  • A complete patient history
    Your doctor will gather information about your current symptoms, contact lens wearing habits, current contact lens care routines, and any previous eye issues or eye health conditions.
  • Slit-lamp examination
    A slit-lamp exam is a common test your eye doctor will use to assess the overall health of your eyes.  This exam allows the doctor to see the whole eye, including inside the eye and the back portion of your eyeball.  This holistic inspection of the eye helps to rule out other issues, including signs of inflammation, corneal staining, and early signs of glaucoma or cataracts.
  • Allergy testing
    In cases where the cause of the allergy is uncertain, allergy testing may be recommended to identify specific triggers.
  • An examination of current contact lenses
    The condition of the contact lenses for protein deposits, deposits, or signs of material degradation may help to determine the cause of your allergic reaction.

Managing a contact lens allergy

Just having an allergy believed to be caused by your contact lenses doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be relegated to wearing only glasses. While a small percentage of people cannot wear contact lenses because of allergies, many find they can use a combination of preventive measures, treatment strategies, and lifestyle modifications to address and correct the issue.

A few of these preventative measures, treatment strategies, and lifestyle modifications include:

  • Proper lens care
    Carefully following recommended lens hygiene practices, including thorough cleaning, disinfection, and protein removal, can minimize allergen buildup and reduce the risk of allergic reactions when wearing your contact lenses.
  • Switching lens solutions
    Some people experiencing solution sensitivity find that simply switching to a hypoallergenic, preservative-free, or hydrogen peroxide-based contact lens solutions helps to alleviate irritation and discomfort.
  • Lens replacement
    Regular replacement of contact lenses, especially daily disposable lenses, as prescribed by an eye care professional, is another important step in preventing the accumulation of allergens and maintaining good eye health. In some cases, silicone hydrogel lenses may be recommended. These types of contacts allow enhanced breathability when compared to traditional hydrogel contact lenses.
  • Avoidance of allergens
    Minimizing exposure to environmental allergens, such as pollen or pet dander, through measures like wearing sunglasses, using an air purifier, or wearing your prescription eyeglasses when allergy levels are high can help to alleviate symptoms.
  • Medication
    Topical antihistamines, mast cell stabilizers, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be prescribed to alleviate ocular itching, redness, and inflammation associated with allergies experienced from contact lenses.
  • Lubricating eye drops
    Lubricating eye drops provide relief from dryness and irritation caused by contact lens allergies. Choose artificial tears that are specifically formulated for contact lens wearers for optimal comfort.

If you experience persistent or severe allergic reactions despite preventive measures, consult your eye care professional. They are able to further assess your condition and recommend additional treatment options, including alternative contact lens materials or wearing schedules.

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