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Can you Swim with Contacts in the Ocean/Pool?

If you have contact lenses and are thinking of swimming, you may be torn between going in the pool with them or not. Chances are high that your doctor must have mentioned this issue to you when getting the contacts for you. If you forgot, however, don’t worry as we have that covered here.

The short answer to this question is no; don’t swim with your contact lenses. That stands whether you’re swimming in a pool with or without chlorine, the ocean, a freshwater lake or even showering. Your contact lenses are simply not supposed to come into contact with any type of water. The reason for this is that they easily get infected which may lead to the loss of your sight.

There are, however, practical solutions to this impediment. These include using swimming goggles that completely keep water away from the eyes and using disposable contact lenses that you can get rid of immediately you’re done with the swim.

Why Swimming with your Contacts is a Bad Idea

Contact lenses are some of the most delicate pieces of eyewear around. Not only are they structurally weak, but they’re also highly vulnerable to infections. In fact, clean tap water can infect your contact lenses (and your eyes in the process) while the same water will not affect the eyes when you don’t have your contacts on.

contact lens when swimming is bad
contact lens

The salts in sea water and the chlorine in swimming pool water are only likely to damage your eyes with or without contact lenses. It’s the reason you have red eyes after a swim without protection for your eyes. With contact lenses, it becomes even worse.

Contact lenses require that your eyes remain moist at all times. The salts in sea water and the chlorine in pools will wash away the natural lubrication from the tears. Without lubrication, your eyes dry up which makes the contacts uncomfortable to wear.

As per the stipulations of the FDA, your contact lenses are not supposed to come into contact with any form of external fluid. That list includes water from your shower, tap, ocean, lake swimming pool and many other places. Unless you’re adding saline solutions to lubricate your eyes, other substances aren’t allowed as well.

While the water in a lake, ocean or swimming pool may look clear, it can be harboring an endless list of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria. These can become easily attached to the contact lenses leading to serious infections. In fact, some bacteria common with contact lenses can lead to a total loss of your sight.

These reasons can be summed up as follows:

1. Leads to Infections

The most likely outcome of swimming with your contact lenses is that you’ll get infections in your eyes. While some can be done away with using simple eye drops, others will require a serious treatment routine. The complete list of the most likely diseases and conditions affecting those swimming with contact lenses is below.

Among the most likely symptoms that your eyes are infected include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Red and painful eyes
  • Overproduction of tears
  • Long periods of red eyes

These and other symptoms should be a cause for alarm and warrant an immediate visit to the doctor.

2. You May Lose the Contact Lenses in the Water

The water in the ocean or sea can easily dislodge the contact lenses from your eyes if you swim with them on. This is made worse if the water has a significant current.

If you wear the rigid gas permeable contact lenses, you’re at an even higher risk of losing them if you take them for a swim. You’re better off with soft contact lenses. The downside to having soft lenses is that their high level of permeability makes them highly likely to allow bacteria and other pathogens into your eyes.

3. They Can Hurt Your Eyes

At times, the water can make the contact lenses to tighten further on your eyes leading to a painful experience. This occurs when the lubrication between the eye and the lens dies down and the lenses are then sucked on the surface of the eyes.

While this is common with soft lenses and in fresh water, it can happen at any time when you have to swim with the lenses. As long as water is allowed to come into contact with the lenses, you’re at risk of this issue.

Another painful issue with swimming with your contact lenses is when the natural tears of your eyes are washed away leaving your eyes dry. The dry eye condition is quite painful and may lead to infections as you touch your eyes trying to soothe the pain away.

4. It’s Costly

The fact remains that, if you swam or showered in your contact lenses, you’ll either have to throw them away and get new ones, or clean them up before using them again.

If you use the disposable ones on a daily basis, swimming with them will result into using them up faster than you had intended.

When it comes to cleaning the lenses after the swim, you’ll do so on a more frequent basis. Besides being cumbersome, it costs more cleaning agent and increases the risk of damaging and contaminating the lenses through frequent handling.

These are just some of the issues likely to happen when you swim with your contact lenses. You can avoid them by following the directives in the sections below.

Common Eye Conditions Related to Pool & Ocean Waters

No matter the water body you’re swimming in, you’re highly prone to eye infections and other conditions. If you swim with contact lenses, the problem is only made worse as you offer the pathogens a better surface to attach themselves on and grow.

Swimming in ocean water
Ocean water swimming

Some of the conditions include:

1. Red Eye Irritation or Dry Eye Condition

The blurry vision you experience after swimming with your contact lenses occurs due to the lack of moisture in the eyes. The salt in the water will wash away the tear film leaving your eyes without hydration. It thus becomes a pain rolling around your eyes in their sockets.

What makes it worse is that you’ll start rubbing your eyes as they’ll get itchy. While this will make your eyes even more irritated, it’s also an avenue for bacteria to enter the eyes. Chances are high that you’ll not be disinfecting your eyes before you rub your eyes.

Your hands pick up more and more germs as the day goes by. If you must rub your eyes, do so when they’re closed and with the outside part of your hands not your fingers.

2. Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)

Another common eye condition picked from pools and swimming areas is the pink eye or conjunctivitis. It gets its name from the pinkish foam-like substances that form around your eyes when you wake up.

The fact that there’s chlorine in the water shouldn’t make you think all pathogens will be dead. The chlorine in the water isn’t strong enough to kill germs. That amount of chlorine would be harmful to your own skin. Instead, the chlorine there is to simply bleach the water so that it appears clean and clear. It may kill the very weakest of germs however.

This infection requires a proper treatment routine to get rid of it but is serious enough to warrant a break from work or school for a few days.

3. Acanthamoeba Keratitis

While other conditions can be dealt with easily, this type of infection is a very serious one as it easily leads to irreparable blindness.

It’s a type of amoeba that infects your eyes and mostly affects the cornea. As it grows inwards, it can permanently alter the structure of the eye to the extent that you won’t be able to see again.

These and many other conditions are likely to occur when you swim with your contacts in the sea or swimming pool. The solutions to them are listed below. As a matter of caution, you should first assess the cleanliness of the water you swim in to avoid infections even when you don’t have your contacts on.

What to Do When you Have Contact Lenses

Most eye doctors will advise you not to allow the lenses to get in contact with water while you wearing them. Which simply means the easiest and safest precaution is to carefully remove them before getting into swimming or for a shower.

When reapplying, do remember to use your optometrist-recommended contact lens cleaning solution to sterilize the lenses.

If you can’t see without your contacts and are itching for a swim, there are ways you can have both. These are by no means safe methods. You seek your doctor’s advice before trying them out.

The focus of these methods is to ensure your eyes are clean by keeping the germs at bay. You can do that by protecting the eyes such that water doesn’t get to them, or by discarding the contact lenses as soon as you’re done swimming.

1. Wear Swimming Goggles

Swimming googles may help if you have for this dilemma. They not only protect your eyes from the harmful sea and pool water, but they do a great job at helping you see in the water.

If dirt gets into your eyes when you’re navigating a heavy current, for example, you’ll be heavily disadvantaged. Swimming goggles will maintain your visibility at all times.

The goggles need to be of good quality and exact fit for your face such that they don’t let water in the through the sides.

You can have them custom-made for you to keep your eyes free of water. Customized ones also have the advantage of eliminating your refractive error and doing away with other issues associated with swimming with eyewear.

With such, you can peacefully swim in the sea or other water body without messing up your contact lenses.

2. Dispose the Contacts after Use

If you must swim with your contacts, you should prepare to immediately take them off once you’re done swimming. If you swim often and find using goggles hectic or can’t access them, you should have a set of disposable contact lenses you can use and disposed off easily.

Even when the contacts you have aren’t disposable, you should not use them ever again. There’s the erroneous notion that you can easily clean the lenses then reuse them. This is may be misleading given that some of the cleaning liquids aren’t strong enough to kill all the bacteria you can get from the water. In fact, you’ll only be moisturizing the lenses then returning them onto your eyes.

Keep in mind that cleaning liquids are almost as strong as your tears. If they were too strong, they’ll likely affect your eyes when you put contact lenses on them after cleaning.

If you already swam with your contacts, simply throw them and clean your eyes properly. For cleaning, you should use the right eye drops to clean then wait for the irritation to calm down before replacing the lenses. If the irritation is still there after a day, there’s a high chance that your eyes are infected and need immediate treatment.

3. Keep Eyes Dry

Another way is to keep your eyes dry as much as you can. This can be done by using slow strokes in the water while also keeping your head above the water at all times. Beyond that, keep your eyes closed as much as you can. Even after leaving the pool and going to the shower, keep your eyes closed and only open them after drying up your hair and face.

This can be quite tough to pull off as the chances of water going into your face when swimming is very high. It’s even harder swimming in the ocean with currents and winds all around you.

Putting these aspects into perspective can help you avoid the issues associated with swimming with your contacts.

If you’re into water sports and find the contact lenses to be a hindrance to your career, consider eye corrective measures such as LASIK surgery or orthokeratology. These procedures will restore your natural sight thus giving you the freedom

Further Reading

Following is a list of articles with more swimming information and other water sports

Swimming FAQs & Ideas

Swimming Strokes/Styles

Swimming Accessories

Pool Exercises

Other Water Sports