What Causes a Contact Lens Allergy?
In most cases that first seem like a contact lens allergy, the person isn’t actually allergic to contact lenses. Instead, they’re allergic to the proteins, pollen, bacteria, dust, and other contaminants that build up on the contacts while they’re worn. This buildup is a natural part of contact lens wear.
When you’re allergic to something, your immune system produces antibodies to attack what it identifies as a foreign body or allergen. A person can have a contact lens allergy but it’s rare because most contacts prescribed in the U.S. today are made from a hypoallergenic material called silicone hydrogel.
Research has found that most people’s immune cells do not react to silicone hydrogel contact lenses. They do react to the proteins, bacteria, pollen, and other debris that build up on your contacts.
Your cleaning solution gets rid of most of these substances when you clean your contacts, but they build up again with each use. Anything left on your contacts can be absorbed by your body, and that’s what can cause eye irritation and other symptoms associated with an allergy.
What Are the Symptoms of a Contact Lens Allergy?
Here are the main symptoms that could indicate you have an allergy to your contact lenses:
- Watery eyes
- A burning sensation
While it’s unlikely that you’re allergic to your contact lenses, you could be experiencing allergy symptoms as a reaction to something else your eyes have been exposed to.
For example, it’s possible to have an allergic reaction to your contact lens solution, especially if it contains preservatives. If you think this may be the case, talk to your eye doctor about your options, which may include solutions made specifically for sensitive eyes (and typically labeled as such). They may also suggest some preservative-free solutions for you to try.
If those don’t help, your doctor may recommend that you start using daily disposable contact lenses so you won’t need to store your lenses in solution.
Your symptoms may also be due to seasonal allergies, which can present with similar symptoms. Your seasonal allergies may vary throughout the year depending on the amount and types of pollen that are in the air.
Causes of Contact Lens Discomfort
So, if you aren’t allergic to your contact lenses, why are they uncomfortable? You may experience eye irritation and discomfort with contact lenses if these other factors are at play:
- Improper fit – If your contacts don’t fit your eyes properly, they won’t feel comfortable when you wear them.
- Improper care – If you don’t clean and store your contacts correctly, or change them out as frequently as your doctor directed, they are more likely to cause discomfort.
- Eye allergies – In addition to the seasonal allergies mentioned above, your eyes may react to allergens such as pet dander, mold, perfume, smoke, and other irritants.
- Infections – Bacterial or viral eye infections such as pink eye can irritate your eyes.
- Environmental factors – Smog, dry weather, and tobacco can all cause eye discomfort.
- Foreign objects – Eyelashes, lint, dust, and anything else in your eyes that shouldn’t be there can lead to irritation.
- Dry eyes – Soft contact lenses require moisture to stay hydrated, which diverts fluid from your tear film. This can cause contact lens-related dry eyes.
Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis
Giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC) is a condition that mostly affects people who wear contact lenses. GPC can feel like an eye allergy because the inside of your eyelid is red, swollen, and irritated, and big bumps (called papillae) develop on the underside of your upper eyelid.
GPC can be caused by:
- Contact lenses rubbing against your eyelids (this may occur if your contacts don’t fit properly)
- An allergy to contact lenses or contact lens solution
- Buildup of protein deposits or other substances on contacts (this can result from improper care and/or infrequent replacement)
Symptoms of GPC can include:
- Blurry vision caused by too much mucus in your eyes
- The feeling that something is in your eye
- Red eyes
- Eye pain
- Itchy eyes
- Droopy or swollen eyelids
- The feeling that your contacts move around your eyes when you blink
If you are a contact lens wearer and suspect you have GPC, stop wearing your contacts right away and schedule an eye exam with your eye doctor. If not treated immediately, GPC can damage your eyelid and cornea.
How to Treat a Contact Lens Allergy or Contact Discomfort
Giant papillary conjunctivitis, an allergy to contact lenses, and contact lens discomfort typically have similar treatment protocols. After a comprehensive eye exam, your eye doctor will likely recommend that you:
- Wear your glasses for a few weeks instead of your contacts to see if your symptoms go away.
- Avoid wearing your contacts all day when you’re ready to start using them again. Start with a few hours at a time to see how your eyes feel.
- Try contacts that are made with a different fit or material.
- Use prescription anti-inflammatory eye drops or ointment to relieve swelling and itching.
- Try a preservative-free contact lens solution if you think your lens solution could be the problem, or add a separate lens cleaner to your lens care routine.
- Replace your contacts more often if buildup of proteins and other substances is the likely cause of your discomfort.
Treatment may vary depending on the severity of your symptoms and whether your doctor finds any other issues during your eye exam.
Contact Allergy vs. Contact Lens Intolerance
A contact lens allergy or contact lens discomfort is typically temporary and manageable. Contact lens intolerance (CLI) is when you can’t wear contact lenses anymore because they are too painful. You can become intolerant to contacts at any point, even if you’ve worn them for years. You may develop CLI if you continue to wear your contacts even though:
- Your lenses don’t fit properly.
- You don’t take proper care of your contacts (cleaning and changing as directed, etc.)
- Your contacts often get stuck in your eyes.
- You have trouble putting your contacts in your eyes or taking them out.
- You feel like your contacts move around in your eyes.
- You developed chronic dry eye.
- You started taking ongoing medications that make your eyes dry.
- You have a scratched cornea (the clear front surface of your eye) or corneal ulcer.
- You have an eye infection, such as pink eye or giant papillary conjunctivitis.
If you believe you have a contact allergy, contact lens intolerance, or any other eye or vision problem, make an appointment to see your eye doctor. They will assess your eye health, look for signs of what may be causing your discomfort, and determine the best course of action moving forward.
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- Eye Allergy. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Accessed August 2023.
- Eye Irritation. Cleveland Clinic. January 2023.
- Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis. American Academy of Ophthalmology. April 2023.
- Why Do Contacts Burn? All About Vision. January 2019.
- Why Contact Lens Wearers Need Their Annual Eye Exam. American Refractive Surgery Council. June 2022.
- How to Talk to Patients About Contact Lens Intolerance. Eyes On Eyecare. March 2023.