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No Swimming with Contacts: Optometrist not on Duty

by Cheryl G. Murphy, OD

When we think of fun in the summer sun it often involves water in some way. We love to hit the beach, open our pools, kayak on the lake, and sit under the summer stars in our Jacuzzis. However, one thing that would put a damper on our fun in the summer sun is acquiring a nasty eye infection or complication from wearing our contact lenses in or around contaminated water.

While it may be unpleasant to think about, the truth is all types of water can be contaminated with microorganisms. This includes tap water (such as that used when taking a bath or a shower), bottled water, pool water, ocean water, jacuzzi water, pond water and just about every other form of water. Every year, eye care professionals hear stories from across the nation about people who have suffered permanent vision loss secondary to complications from eye infections that they got from coming in contact with contaminated water while wearing their contact lenses or handling them improperly. One microorganism which can cause a horrendous eye infection and possibly even devastating, permanent vision loss is Acanthamoeba.

According to the CDC, Acanthamoeba is a “microscopic, free-living ameba (single-celled living organism)” that is commonly found in lakes, oceans, soil and even air. If water containing Acanthamoeba reaches the eye and gets sandwiched between a contact lens and the eye, the micro-organism is held there for a longer period of time than it would have been had one not had a contact lens on. This longer contact time increases the likelihood that the microorganism would choose to invade the cornea and cause an infection. Although the reported incidence of acanthamoeba keratitis in the US appears relatively low with 1 or 2 cases per million contact lens wearers annually, an article published in Cornea in August 2017, surveyed over 1,000 soft contact lens wearers and an astounding 62 percent of them admitted to wearing their contact lenses while swimming. Proper patient education on preventing acanthamoeba infections has to be reiterated by eye care professionals issuing prescriptions for contact lenses.

If acanthamoeba does invade a person’s cornea, that person may experience some or all of the following: eye pain, redness, blurred vision, light sensitivity, excessive tearing and a foreign body sensation (the feeling that something is in their eye.) If one experiences such symptoms after wearing contact lenses and having them come into contact with water in some way, they should report to their eye care professional immediately and if they are not available, seek medical care elsewhere. If left untreated, an infection from Acanthamoeba can escalate causing severe eye pain and even blindness. An eye care professional can come up with an early diagnosis, treatment and management plan which can be instrumental in minimizing both short term and long term effects of such an infection.

The good news is, if one chooses to wear contact lenses while they are swimming, soaking or participating in water sports, wearing properly fitted swim goggles over the contact lenses can help to keep any water that could possibly be contaminated completely away from the eyes and the lenses. Also, one should remember to wash their hands before inserting or removing contact lenses and maybe it would even be a good idea to wash their hands after swimming since some contact lens wearers tend to unknowingly touch their lenses while they are on their eyes if they get a little irritated or dry which could happen out there while enjoying the summer sun.