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Dr. Sumitra Khandelwal recommends removing contacts before swimming in pools, lakes or the ocean.

Taking a dip in some cool water is one of the best ways to beat the heat this summer. While there are many water safety tips out there, Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Sumitra Khandelwal says those who wear contact lenses should take extra precaution when it comes to protecting the eyes.

“There are several problems with swimming in contacts including irritation, minor infections and even severe infection such as ulcer,” said Khandelwal, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Baylor who specializes in cornea diseases. “You can get these infections through water like rivers, lakes, hot tubs and even regular pool water.”

One rare but devastating eye infection is called acanthamoeba, caused by tiny parasites infecting the eye leading to pain, redness and blurred vision. The infection is difficult to diagnose and can worsen quickly. “There are other infections that can develop like bacterial infections and fungal infections in contact lens wearers, but this is the most difficult to diagnose and treat with many patients ending up with vision loss,” she said.

Another infection that may occur if you wear your contacts in general without taking care of them is called pseudomonas. “These bacteria love water,” said Khandelwal. “They need natural water to grow. They stick to contacts and eventually contact lens cases. Pseudomonas bacteria also like to invade the cornea through micro scratches which occur when swimming but can also invade even when just removing lenses.” 

Signs and symptoms of this type of eye infection include redness, light sensitivity, decreased vision and pain, she said. Many infections can be treated quickly but it’s important to see an eye provider quickly if you are a contact lens wearer. If caught even days late, the infection can become worse.

Wearing glasses on the beach or lake can be uncomfortable, but it is the safer choice. Khandelwal recommends prescription sunglasses and goggles. “If you wear your contacts in the water, it’s almost like playing a game of chance. It’s not something that people think about. They don’t expect to be waking up the next day with an eye infection,” she said.

“My recommendation for the summertime is to not swim with your contacts on. If you have no other choice at the time, immediately remove them and put on a fresh new pair or glasses. If you find that you cannot stay away from your contact lenses then ask your eye care provider about daily contact lenses which you can throw away each day.”