If you normally wear contacts in your daily life and are thinking of going swimming, you might be wondering if you can swim with contact lenses on. Chances are your optometrist has already explained to you the do’s and don’ts of handling them, but in case you’ve forgotten, we’ll cover that topic here in regards to contacts and swimming.
The common wisdom is that you should not swim with your contact lenses. It doesn’t matter if you’re swimming in saltwater, chlorinated water, freshwater, or even when you’re showing. Contact lenses should not come into contact with any type of water except contact solution. The reason is that bacteria from these contaminated water sources can get trapped between your contact lenses and cornea and possibly lead to an eye infection or permanent loss of sight.
That said, there is a potential workaround to this. For instance, you could wear daily disposable contacts and find a pair of swim goggles that are unlikely to leak. If you’re vigilant, you can possibly go the entire session without water ever coming into contact with your contact lenses. If water does reach your contacts, then you can get rid of the contacts after your swim before the bacteria can linger long enough to cause any damage. You can also try swimming with a full face snorkel mask and wearing contacts underneath.
Why swimming with contacts is generally a bad idea
Contact lenses are extremely delicate items. Not only are they structurally fragile, but they are also highly susceptible to contamination. Even exposing contact lenses to “clean” tap water can potentially lead to infections because the bacteria in water can linger on them and transfer to your eyes in the process. Without contacts, water from the same source would not have such a deleterious effect on your eyes because the water would get rinsed away by your tears, whereas with contacts, they linger for longer.
The high concentration of salt in saltwater, or the chemicals found in chlorinated water, or the bacteria, viruses, or waste products potentially found in all water can damage your eyes with or without contact lenses. It’s the reason why your eyes can turn red, get irritated, or otherwise feel uncomfortable after water gets in them. With contact lenses on, the problem is amplified even more because water can get trapped by the contacts.
Next, contacts require your eyes to be moist at all times. The salt found in saltwater as well as chlorine in pool water can dry out your eyes and wash away the natural lubrication provided by tears, respectively. If your eyes are dry, the contacts will feel uncomfortable to wear, and may even get stuck.
As per the recommendations of the FDA, contact lenses should not come into contact with any form of external fluid other than saline solutions (i.e. contact lens solution). That means that even water you expect to be clean like tap water isn’t clean enough for your contacts either. And don’t think that you can make your own saline solution; you won’t be precise enough and they are affordable enough that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t just buy some.
Even if the water you will be swimming in looks pristine, don’t be fooled. Plenty of harmful bacteria and other microorganisms are so small that we cannot perceive them. Doesn’t mean they aren’t still there. If water should reach your contacts, you had better take them out as soon as possible so the bacteria do not linger long enough to give you an eye infection. Your options are to either rinse your contacts in solution (kind of a pain if you’re in the middle of swimming), or if you’re wearing daily contacts, to throw them away.
Risks of wearing contacts while swimming
Increased risk of eye infection
If you swim with contacts and water gets into your eyes, the contact lenses can trap the water. If you remove the contacts quickly then you likely won’t have any issues; it’ll just be like if you got water in your eyes without contacts. However, the question remains: what do you do with your now contaminated contacts?
There’s no way to know for sure if rinsing the contacts in contact solution has gotten rid of all the bacteria that has come into contact with it. The safest option is to wear daily contact lenses and to just throw them out and wear new ones to reduce the risk of eye infections.
Most eye infections can be cured by using some eye drops. Others may require you to see a specialist. If you suspect you have an eye infection from swimming with contact lenses, check if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Blurry vision.
- Sensitivity to light.
- Red or painful eyes.
- Excessive amount of tears.
- Long periods of red eyes.
The presence of these symptoms is not necessarily a red flag unless they last for several hours or even days. In that case, you should see a doctor before the symptoms worsen.
They can hurt your eyes
When your eyes are exposed to saltwater, the salt can draw out fluid from your eyes, causing a painful, burning sensation. When you’re wearing contacts, the saltwater can remove the natural lubrication on your eyes, which causes the lens to directly touch the surface of your eyes.
Even when swimming with soft lenses and in fresh water, a similar issue can occur. As long as water can come into contact with your lenses, you can experience pain.
In this instance, the water is washing away the natural tears your eye produces for lubrication, leaving them dry and at risk of coming into direct contact with your lenses. Having dry eyes can also lead to infection if you rub your eyes to try to soothe the pain. It’s also just uncomfortable to have dry eyes, and there is always a risk of the contact lenses also getting dried out and getting stuck on your eyes (a true nightmare scenario).
You can lose your contacts
So far, we have only been highlighting how dangerous it is when water gets trapped between your contact lenses and your eyes, but another issue is when the water dislodges your contacts from your eyes. Depending on how poor your eyesight is without corrective lenses, this can be a minor inconvenience or it can be a serious problem.
If you are wearing gas permeable contacts, you have an even higher chance of losing them when swimming. You’d be better off with soft contact lenses, though the downside to them is that their high permeability means they are more likely to allow bacteria and other pathogens to pass onto your eyes.
It can get costly
If water reaches your contacts, you have to either throw them away or you have to thoroughly clean your contacts before you can use them again. The former option is expensive, the latter is annoying. Plus, it forces you to use up your contact solution faster, so it’s technically more expensive as well since you need to buy new ones more often.
There’s also the possibility that you cannot do a good enough job cleaning the contacts. After all, do you really know if all of the bacteria was killed? Besides being annoying, it’s possible that your constant handling of it actually exposes it to even more bacteria. For this reason, we recommend just replacing your contacts with new ones just to be safe, and this is an added cost – the price of safety.
Even if you use daily disposable ones each time you swim, if any water gets into them before the day is over, you’ll have to dispose of them early and use them up at an accelerated rate. Plus, there’s also the aforementioned risk of having your contact lenses get washed out. If the contact lenses you were wearing were intended to last longer, then losing them so quickly means you need to replace them faster as well.
Pay attention to these symptoms if you swim with contacts
Red Eye / Dry Eye
After swimming underwater with your eyes open (or getting water in your eyes by accident), you will experience temporary vision loss until you get used to it. In the meantime, your eyes will be red and your vision will be blurry. What’s happening is that the salt/chlorine is drying your eyes out. Without the natural tear film protecting your eyes, it can even become painful just to roll your eyes around in their sockets.
Oftentimes, the symptoms are further exacerbated when you start rubbing your eyes as they can also feel itchy. Kind of like scratching an itch, not only will it make the area even redder (and not any less itchy), but it can also introduce bacteria to that area. When was the last time you disinfected your eyes after rubbing them?
Unfortunately, sometimes the discomfort felt in your eyes is so great that you will have no choice but to rub them. Unless you sanitize your hands beforehand, your hands will have germs from all of the things you touched before. If you really must rub your eyes, make sure your eyelids are tightly closed and rub using your knuckles or the back of your hand, not with your fingertips.
Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)
Another common eye symptom you can experience after swimming in pools or saltwater is conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye. It’s known as such because of the pinkish foam-like substance that accumulates around your eyes when you wake up.
Just because you were swimming in a chlorinated pool doesn’t mean that all pathogens have been killed. If there were enough chlorine in the water to kill all germs, it would also do serious damage to your skin. Chlorine is there to make the water relatively safe to swim in (and to look cleaner than it actually is), but you are still susceptible to the germs inside. It’s why you should always wear goggles when swimming, whether you have contacts or not.
When you are suffering from conjunctivitis, you need to see a doctor for treatment. It is a serious enough symptom to warrant taking time off from school/work in order for you to fully recover from it. If you don’t, the discomfort may be enough to distract you from your tasks anyways, plus the condition can worsen so see a doctor about it.
While the other conditions can be treated relatively easily, this infection is a lot worse because of the potential to cause permanent vision loss.
Acanthamoeba Keratitis is a microscopic amoeba that, if it reaches your eyes, can cause an eye infection targeting the cornea. As it spreads inwards, it can permanently distort the structure of your eye such that you experience permanent loss of vision.
You can even get this infection when swimming in a public pool, not just in outdoor bodies of water. Due to the nature of how contacts work, they will make you even more susceptible to getting this eye infection.
For this reason, you should inspect the cleanliness of any body of water you intend on swimming in. Furthermore, you should always wear goggles whether you have contacts on or not. Otherwise, you are taking an unnecessary risk that could lead to terrible consequences.
Let these symptoms serve as a warning to those who are willing to attempt swimming with contacts. Again, it is not recommended due to the associated risks, but chances are you’ll still want to do it. So rather than completely ignoring this topic, let’s discuss what we might do if we hypothetically went swimming with contact lenses; again, this is NOT a recommendation and you do it at your own risk.
How to swim with contact lenses
No eye specialist will say it’s okay for you to swim with contacts on; they will even warn you about getting water on your contacts from “clean” sources such as from your sink or showerhead. That’s how serious the risks are. Therefore, the common wisdom is that you should remove your contacts before you go swimming or even to take a shower.
When reapplying your contacts or cleaning them, you must only rinse them with contact lens solution to sterilize the lenses. Do NOT rinse your contacts with water from any source except saline solution, otherwise it is not clean enough!
The only “proper” way to swim with corrective lenses is to wear prescription swim goggles. This is when your goggle’s lenses have been replaced with prescription lenses. However, they are expensive, custom-made, and most people are too casual about swimming to go out of their way to purchase a bespoke product.
So here we are – trying to figure out if you can swim with contact lenses as a cheap alternative to buying prescription swim goggles. The answer is that it’s possible, of course, but for the reasons provided above, not a good idea. Let’s ponder how you might be able to pull this off while minimizing the risks.
Wear swim goggles
Your swim goggles are your one and only protection against the water to keep them from reaching your eyes and contacts. Plus, it’s a good idea to wear them even if you aren’t wearing contacts just for your general safety.
For instance, not only do they separate your eyes from the bacteria-filled water, but they also offer protection against debris or physical impacts. This is especially important if you are swimming outdoors where there could be splinters floating in the water.
Swim goggles are only useful if they can seal tightly against your face. Thus, you need to find one that fits your face perfectly to minimize the amount of water leakage that will occur. Believe us when we say that leakage will occur; it’s not a matter of if but when. However, it should be so gradual that you can clear your goggles long before they fill up or reach your eyes.
After you have secured yourself a reliable mask that is comfortable and rarely leaks, then and only then might you be able to wear contacts while swimming. You have to be extremely vigilant in this case to keep water away from your eyes.
The biggest risk is actually when you take off your goggles; you might get the urge to rub your eyes and this can potentially cause the pool/saltwater to reach your eyes. Plus, if you’re in the pool and there are young children nearby, they could easily spray water everywhere with whatever antics they are up to. When you’re outdoors, you have children and the ocean currents to worry about.
Also, we mentioned above that you could get custom-made prescription lenses. These are much more expensive, however they will fix the refractive error in your eyes while fixing all of the other issues associated with wearing contacts while swimming. With such a pair, you could have a much more relaxed swimming session instead of constantly worrying about water reaching your contacts.
Wear daily disposable contacts
If you’re planning on swimming with contacts, you had better wear daily contact lenses. All contacts are disposable, however daily contact lenses should be disposed of… well, daily. This is good since the common wisdom is that if contaminated contacts ever reach your contacts, you should take them off and dispose of them quickly. Since daily contacts are meant to be thrown out quickly, you won’t feel like you’ve “wasted” your contacts if water does reach them.
Even if the contacts you’re using aren’t daily contact lenses, you should probably never wear them again. There is a misconception that simply putting your contacts into contact lens solution can easily and perfectly clean them. Unfortunately, the solution is not strong enough to kill all the bacteria found in water meaning some will remain. All you’re really doing is moisturizing the lenses and then putting them back on your eyes, exposing them to the bacteria once again.
The reason that cleaning solution isn’t that strong is because if they were any stronger, they could damage your eyes. Instead, they are designed to be similar to your tears. They are a type of saline solution, meaning the salt content is adjusted to a level that matches the salt content of fluids in the human body.
After disposing of your contacts, chances are your eyes will be fine, but if you don’t want to leave things up to chance then you can use eye drops to soothe your eyes. In fact, if you’re having trouble removing the lens because of how dry your eyes are, then use eye drops to moisturize both the lenses and your eyes to facilitate easier removal. If your eyes still feel irritated for a few hours after taking off the contacts, then you might need to see a doctor.
Do everything possible to ensure water never enters your eyes
As you can see, it is crucial that you keep water away from your eyes in general, but especially if you are wearing contacts while swimming. There are a few ways you can accomplish this.
The first tip is to stay vigilant. Be ready to close your eyes as soon as you sense water has entered your goggles. Be especially careful when you need to remove your goggles to clear them or rub your eyes as this is when water is most likely to reach your eyes.
This can be tough because you basically need to be hyper-aware which can distract you from swimming. Furthermore, if you are swimming outdoors, then the risk of water splashing your face is even higher due to unpredictable ocean currents and wind all around you. If you must take off your goggles, then turn your back to the direction of the waves so that you don’t get splashed in the face.
Whether you’re swimming indoors or outdoors, you’re going to be going to the shower. Remember, not even water from the shower stall or bathroom sink is clean enough to come into contact with your lenses. So you either have to continue to keep your eyes closed, shower with goggles on, or just take off the lenses now to not have to deal with any more inconveniences.
Second, try to swim with your head above water at all times. This can be accomplished using slower strokes, such as the breaststroke. In fact, if you are in the pool for the purpose of weight loss or cardiovascular training, you might not need to swim at all. Have you considered treading water as a form of exercise? There are many ways you can tread water, and some are more effective than others at burning calories. You could get a comparable workout by treading water instead of swimming if weight loss is your primary goal.
Eye doctors would not recommend you swim with contact lenses. There are certain risks involved that, while avoidable, is not something specialists would condone. Can you swim with contact lenses? Yes, it’s certainly possible, but it has risks. Admittedly, the steps involved to ensure your safety might make it too cumbersome and not worth your while.
Depending on how important swimming or any other water sport is to you, if you need corrective lenses to see, then you had better invest into a pair of prescription lenses for your swimming goggles. There are businesses that offer this service; you could even get prescription dive/snorkel masks if you’re into scuba diving and snorkeling.
Another even more permanent solution is to get laser eye surgery. This procedure will restore your eyesight to 20/20 or even better. With your eyes “fixed”, you never have to worry about contact lenses or prescription lenses ever again. Of course, this is the most expensive option and it is quite life-changing, so in the meantime, perhaps you’ll try the other options discussed in this article.