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How to Tell if You’re Allergic to Your Contacts or Just Lens Solution

Young man who may be allergic to his contacts

Contacts are almost always quite comfortable and convenient. Perhaps that’s why you wouldn't think allergic reactions and contact lenses could go together. But surprisingly, they can and they do.

If you're struggling with irritation, redness, or any other discomfort from your contacts, don’t get frustrated. It’s possible you’re allergic to your contacts. Or maybe you’re allergic to an ingredient in your contact lens solution. Join us as we explore the possibilities and what you can do about it.

What Causes an Allergic Reaction to Contacts?

A contact lens allergy is a bit trickier than it sounds. It's not as cut and dried as food allergies or other outward, visible allergies.

Contacts are composed of hypoallergenic materials. This means the materials themselves don’t usually cause an allergic reaction. Instead, what causes it is a buildup of contaminants on the contacts. However, in rare cases, people can develop allergies to the actual lenses.

Your eyes produce a protein that’s deposited on your contacts while being worn. The protein is broken down when the lenses are stored in the contact solution. Over time, from daily wear, the proteins can end up in your bloodstream via the eyelids. As a result, your immune system identifies these proteins as foreign invaders, similar to an allergen.

Your body then begins creating antibodies. Once enough antibodies are in your bloodstream, the contact lenses become uncomfortable. This leads to an allergic sensation through a condition called giant papillary conjunctivitis, or GPC.

What Is Contact Lens Intolerance?

Contact lens intolerance means a lens wearer cannot use contacts anymore due to pain in the eyes. This condition differs slightly from GPC or contact allergies but has many factors, such as:

Contact lens intolerance can be recognized by pain or irritation in the eyes every time lenses are worn.

Signs That You May Be Allergic to Contacts

Close-up of irritated red eye with pus

Sometimes it's difficult to tell if the problem is simply dry eyes or irritation. But there are a few telling signs of a possible allergy:

While you may not experience all of these items at once, take note of which ones are a bother. You can then share these symptoms with your doctor.

He or she may ask you questions about any other allergies you may have, such as pollen, dust, etc. before officially diagnosing you with a contacts allergy. He or she may also inspect the health of your eyes and the fit of your lenses to rule out all possibilities.

Is It My Lens Solution?

Yes, your lens solution could be the culprit! Contact solutions contain preservatives, and even with proper cleaning, trace amounts of the preservative can still be left behind. Your body could develop antibodies from these preservatives, the same as it did with your eye protein. This can happen even after years of wearing contacts with no problems.

One of the main preservatives in contact lens solution is thimerosal. If your solution contains it, you could develop a sensitivity to it.

Am I Doing Something Wrong?

Worried young lady

If your irritation is persistent, try examining your contact lens care routine. Are you changing your solution frequently? Are you keeping your contact case squeaky clean? Do you wash your hands before handling your contacts? If not, then make the relevant changes and wait for the outcome.

If you believe you’re doing everything right but the problem remains, reach out to your optometrist.

Lenses or Solution?

If you're not sure whether your problem is your contacts or your solution, the best action is trial and error.

Switch your solution to one geared for sensitive eyes. Or try a thimerosal-free or preservative-free solution. See if that makes a difference in alleviating your discomfort. If your symptoms persist, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your situation.

What Can I Do to Avoid Irritation?

Since an allergy can sneak up on you, there's no good way to avoid it completely. But there are steps you can take to ensure you're maintaining good contact lens hygiene:

What Do I Do if I Think I'm Allergic to Contacts?

Contact your doctor if the pain lasts more than a day or if you notice bumps on the insides of your eyelids.

Once you begin experiencing discomfort, remove your lenses immediately. Prolonged wear will only increase the risks of more serious infections and pain. If you have glasses, switch to them for a time.

Your optometrist will prescribe what he or she thinks is best. But you’ll probably forgo wearing lenses for a while to rest your eyes. It could be up to a week or more, depending on your doctor’s opinion.

After your resting period, your doctor will evaluate your condition and make some suggestions. This could include a more rigorous cleaning routine or different fitted lenses. It could also be a change in lens solution or a different type of lens. It all depends on your personal situation.

Understanding Contact Lens Allergies

Young woman discovers the source of her contacts discomfort

Being allergic to contacts is quite an inconvenience. People often love their contacts and it's frustrating when GPC or the lens solution becomes a problem. If you're experiencing any of the above symptoms, get in touch with your optometrist before the problem becomes severe.

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