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What Happens When You Leave Contact Lenses in Too Long

It’s a question we often get. “How long can I wear my contacts for and what would happen if I wore them longer than the recommended time?”

Possible Causes and Solutions to Contact Lens Irritation

Although it may be tempting to push each pair of your contact lenses to the very edge because of perceived high costs, a recently expired prescription, or other reasons; the fact of the matter is that pushing your length of wear past the recommended time makes your eyes susceptible to complications and conditions that can have a major negative impact on your overall eye health and your vision.

To understand how long too long is, it’s important to first understand the different contacts available and their FDA-approved length of wear time; these include:

  • Daily wear lenses: can be worn daily but removed at night prior to sleeping and stored with an appropriate saline solution. The length of wear varies by the manufacturer and the condition of your eyes, however, they can typically be replaced every two weeks up to every other month.
  • Daily disposable: these lenses are worn during the day, discarded at night, and then a new pair is applied the following morning.
  • Extended-wear contact lenses: these lenses are FDA approved to be worn continuously which includes overnight at a length of anywhere from one to four weeks depending on the manufacturer's recommendation.

Based on your contact lenses and their recommended wear, what “too long” means is going to vary. If you have daily wear lenses and your doctor recommends that you replace them every two weeks however you continue wearing those for 2 months, even properly taking them out and storing them at night, you then risk developing a number of issues.

The risks and issues associated with wearing contact lenses for too long can include:

Chronic inflammation

Chronic inflammation is the most basic issue that can arise from wearing contact lenses past their wear time. Over time and with ongoing inflammation, you risk not being able to wear contact lenses anymore due to lens intolerance.

Corneal abrasions

Corneal abrasions happens when you accumulate dirt or debris under your contact lenses that cause scratches on the cornea of your eye. When not allowed to heal properly, become aggravated, or become exposed to bacteria, can develop into a corneal ulcer.

Corneal ulcers

Also known as infectious keratitis, corneal ulcers are a very serious and common eye condition; they present as an open sore or white looking spot in the outer layer of the cornea and can cause pain, eye discomfort and light sensitivity. Corneal ulcers will be treated by a doctor with an antibiotic drop and require you to not wear contact lenses for an extended amount of time in order to allow your cornea to properly heal.

Corneal hypoxia

Regardless of which type of contact you use, if they’re worn past the recommended wear time, it will reduce the amount of oxygen available to the cornea, which results in corneal hypoxia. Mild cases and symptoms of hypoxia include blurred vision, burning, scratchy feeling, and excessive tearing; all of which are temporary. More severe cases, however, can lead to the death of epithelial cells resulting in permanent changes in vision or neovascularization, which results in new blood vessel growth on the cornea.

Damage to corneal stem cells

Your cornea can maintain its transparency by rapidly replacing aged or injured epithelial cells on the cornea. The stem cells that are present on your cornea further guarantee that these epithelial cells will be renewed and that your cornea will remain transparent. By wearing your contacts past their recommended wear time, you could risk damaging these stem cells which would result in a condition that causes an opaqueness in your cornea; in addition to this, there’s also an increased chance of infection, guaranteed vision loss, and other complications.

Your vision is very important and keeping your eyes healthy should be a top priority for you. As a contact lens wearer this starts with listening to the advice of your doctor, only wearing your contact lenses according to the manufacturer's recommendations, and properly caring for your lenses the entire time.

Read more: How to Properly Clean Your Contact Lenses