Updated Sept. 7, 2021
Whether you’re new to wearing contact lenses or an experienced wearer, you might run into a common situation: running out of contact lens solution.
If that happens, you might feel tempted to rinse or store your contacts in tap water. But you shouldn’t do that.
Using tap water — or storing your contacts in tap water — could lead to severe consequences for your eyes. Organisms that live in the tap water can cause a severe, sight-threatening eye infection.
“Contact lenses and tap water should never mix,” says Deepinder Dhaliwal, MD, LAc, chief, Cornea and Refractive Surgery divisions, UPMC Eye Center.
Dr. Dhaliwal, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has researched the dangers of using tap water on contacts.
Learn more about how water can harm your contacts, and how you can protect your eyes.
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Why Is Tap Water Bad for Contacts?
Contact solution is sterile and is specially designed to clean and disinfect your lenses. Tap water doesn’t share the disinfectant properties of contact lens solutions. In fact, water allows bacteria and harmful pathogens to stick to your contacts.
Water often contains amoebas, single-celled organisms that have the ability to change shape. One particular type of amoeba, known as acanthamoeba, is typically found in tap water, well water, lake water, and other sources.
Acanthamoeba can cause a severe eye infection known as acanthamoeba keratitis.
“Acanthamoeba keratitis is one of the most challenging infections that we treat in ophthalmology,” Dr. Dhaliwal says.
What Is Acanthamoeba Keratitis?
Acanthamoeba causes acanthamoeba keratitis by infecting your cornea, the outer layer of your eye. The amoeba can eat into the lower layers of your eyes.
Symptoms of acanthamoeba keratitis include:
- Eye pain.
- Eye redness.
- Blurry vision.
- Light sensitivity.
- Feeling of something in your eye.
Dr. Dhaliwal says it can be difficult to diagnose acanthamoeba keratitis early because the symptoms are similar to other conditions. The amoeba also can change shape, making treatment difficult.
Acanthamoeba keratitis can lead to severe, potentially permanent eye damage, including blindness.
“When we see people coming in with these infections, it’s devastating,” Dr. Dhaliwal says. “It’s painful, and it can be blinding. The sad part is that some of these infections are preventable.”
Protecting Your Contacts from Water
When you get your contacts, it’s important to talk to your doctor about proper use and care. Otherwise, you could unknowingly cause yourself serious problems.
“What we really need to do a better job of is consumer education,” Dr. Dhaliwal says.
In the past, Dr. Dhaliwal says, contact solution boxes suggested rinsing contact lenses and cases with tap water. Those instructions could cause confusion for people who wear contacts, resulting in infections.
Research helped show the dangers of mixing contacts with tap water. Dr. Dhaliwal says at least one major company has removed the instructions about using tap water to rinse lenses and cases.
But if you wear contacts, there are steps you can take to protect your contacts from water and prevent infection:
- Don’t wear your contacts in the shower, while swimming, in a hot tub, or anywhere else they could get wet. Acanthamoeba lives in many different water sources. If there’s a chance your contacts could get wet, don’t wear them.
- Don’t clean your contacts in tap water.
- Don’t clean your contact lens case in tap water. This can transfer harmful bacteria from the case to the contact lenses. If you need to rinse out your case, use contact solution.
- Store your case properly. Don’t store your contact lens case near a sink, where water could splash into the case or onto your contact lenses.
- Make sure your hands aren’t wet when you handle your contact lenses. If you wash your hands, dry them thoroughly before touching your contacts.
Without proper hygiene, you can run an increased risk of developing eye infections and even ulcers that can leave you unable to wear contacts for significant periods of time.
In addition to keeping your contacts away from tap water, you should take other precautions to keep your eyes safe when wearing contacts. That includes never sleeping in your contact lenses and making sure you get your contacts from a licensed provider.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of the UPMC Eye Center experts, call 412-647-2200.
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