Here’s What Happens if You Leave in Your Contact Lenses for Too Long, According to an Optometrist

Photo: Getty Images / Carol Yepes
Sometimes at the end of a long day, remembering to take out your contacts feels like a tall order. (Not to mention washing your face, or if we're being honest...brushing your teeth.)

But just like how skipping a tooth brushing on the reg can have big consequences for your oral health, wearing contacts for too long isn't great for eye health. We chatted with Caryn Nearnberg, OD, an optometrist based in New York City, to figure out how best to take care of your eyes and lenses as well as the proper schedule for wearing, removing, and disposing to keep your eyes safe and well.

What can happen after wearing contacts for too long

Whenever your eye is open, it receives oxygen from the air, which it needs to function properly. When it is closed or covered by a contact lens, it will receive less oxygen. “The movement of your contact lenses, their thickness... and how long you wear them all affect the amount of oxygen that reaches your cornea,” Dr. Nearnberg says.

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Over the course of a day, contact lenses naturally accumulate deposits and proteins by virtue of hanging out in your eyes and being exposed to the air. The more buildup you have on your lenses (say from not taking them out regularly), the less oxygen your eyes receive from the air. “Most people can safely and comfortably wear contact lenses for up to about 12 hours per day, though I always recommend giving your eyes a chance to breathe without lenses in,” she says. A good rule of thumb is eight to 12 hours a day, and removing them at night to let your eyes rest as you sleep.

However, wearing contacts for extended amounts of time slowly starves your eye of oxygen and increases the amount of buildup on the lenses themselves, making you "more prone to infections, blood vessel growth into the eye, and inflammation and redness that can lead to vision loss and contact lens intolerance,” Dr. Nearnberg says. More serious potential complications "can lead to abnormal blood vessel growth, known as pannus or neovascularization, as well as corneal swelling, causing glare and halos,” she adds. It can also increase your risk of bacterial or fungal infections, as well as ulcers, in the eye.

TL;DR: Don't wear your contacts for longer than 12 hours without changing them or throwing them out!

And note—the type of lens matters

While leaving in contacts for too long is universally problematic, how often to replace your contacts often depends on the lens itself. Contact lenses come in a variety of modalities: daily disposables, two-week disposables, monthly disposables, extended wear, and rigid gas permeables (RGPs).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines the replacement schedules, and contact lens manufacturers are required to conduct rigorous safety and efficacy testing. Your doctor can help you find the best one for your eye health.

If you have daily lenses, you should not be sleeping in them or reusing them. “Daily disposable contacts are exactly what they say—a fresh pair is used every day. These lenses are thinner, allowing for more oxygen to the cornea, making them healthier for your eyes,” Dr. Nearnberg says. (This ensures eyes are more lubricated and decreases the risk of complications when worn properly.) These are the kind of lenses she most commonly prescribes in her practice, she adds—particularly during the pandemic.

The two-week contact lenses will be fine for two weeks, but again you should not be sleeping or napping in them. You want to moisten them by storing them in fresh solution nightly. “These are the most common but also yield the most noncompliance, [so] make sure you circle the 1st and 15th of each month to replace,” she says.

Monthly disposables have a 30-day replacement schedule (hence the name), so they will also need to be removed and disinfected in solution every night. The exception are brands that are explicitly classified as "extended wear" (EW), where someone can continuously wear the lenses until replacing them. “I personally never prescribe EW contacts unless there is an extenuated circumstance, as any prolonged wear time can lead to inflammation and infection,” Dr. Nearnberg says.

Lastly, the Rigid Gas Permeables (RGPs) are hard contacts that are also removed and cleaned each night, but they are replaced less often. You may replace them yearly, as suggested. “These are usually prescribed for those who have an irregular corneal shape or more complicated prescriptions,” she says, so they’re less common.

How best to care for your eyes when wearing contacts

Along with changing them regularly, solutions are also an important part of contact lens care. “Multipurpose solutions are the easiest, but hydrogen peroxide solutions can clean lenses more thoroughly,” Dr. Nearnberg says. Since the latter is preservative-free, it is a great alternative to prevent allergic reactions.

Soaking disinfects the lenses overnight, too, so fresh solution is imperative to prevent bacteria growth that can end up on your eyes if you do not have daily contacts that you’d toss out before heading off to bed. “If you keep a contact lens soaking for a prolonged amount of time, make sure to replace the solution often even if it is not worn,” she says. You should also replace the contact lens case itself every three months, according to the American Optometrist Association.

It's also important to try and blink and lubricate your eyes throughout the day to decrease the chances of dryness, infection, or allergies.

If you experience any eye redness, pain, light sensitivity, or decreased vision when wearing contacts, remove them out carefully and call your doctor. And lastly, always have a backup pair of glasses, should you need to remove contacts for a period of time to treat an eye condition. Your peepers will thank you!

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