Although some contact lenses can be worn at night, sleeping with contacts isn’t ideal in most cases. If you fall asleep wearing contacts designed for daily wear, it could result in a host of eye problems, including infections, corneal ulcers, and even certain conditions that could lead to permanent vision loss.
What happens if you sleep with contacts? When you wear contact lenses, they reduce the oxygen supply to the cornea or the front surface of the eye. Normally, the cornea gets its oxygen through blood vessels in the eyelid at night and from the air during the day. Regular contact wearers need that nighttime reset to keep their eyes healthy; thus, the lack of nighttime oxygen can be very damaging.
Why Sleeping with Contacts Can Cause Issues
No matter how convenient or tempting it might seem, sleeping with contacts is not worth it and can cause eye-health issues such as:
Restricted Eye Oxygen
As mentioned above, your eyes receive oxygen from the air when they are open. This is essential for your eyes to function properly. As soon as you put your contacts in, you put a shield in front of your cornea that reduces how much oxygen it receives, the contact acts as a barrier.
On top of that, when you close your eyes with contact lenses, the oxygen supply becomes even lower. As a result, your eyes become irritated, developing redness and inflammation that can snowball into impaired vision.
There’s also a chance that sleeping in your contacts could lead to bacterial or fungal infections in addition to corneal ulcers. Some patients need special treatments such as refractive lens eye surgery, leading them to seek alternatives for contact lenses.
Tear Film Stagnation
Sleeping in daily contacts can lead to a disruption of the tear film on the surface of the eye. When contacts are not worn, the tear film protects the eye from bacteria and other foreign matter. Blinking keeps the tear film fresh, renewing it with new fluid that washes and lubricates the eye.
When contacts are worn while sleeping, the tear film cannot be refreshed and renewed in the same way. When the eyes are closed while sleeping, the tear film cannot protect the eye, allowing bacteria to spread and even cause an infection. The longer contact lenses are worn while sleeping; the more opportunity bacteria have to cause damage.
Interaction with the Surface of the Eye
Wearing contact lenses for a long period of time can change the structure of the eye's surface. Studies show the ocular surface is very sensitive and may even alter its shape if exposed to the pressure of contact lenses for too long.
Scientists are studying how these surface interactions often cause infection to occur quickly. In addition, contact lenses can rub against the cornea while sleeping, raising the possibility of discomfort and inflammation.
Exposure to Microbes via Contamination
Sleeping with contact lenses creates an environment for germs to thrive. To avoid this, it is essential to practice good contact lens hygiene.
This includes washing your hands before handling your lenses or contact lens case, allowing your lens case to air dry throughout the day, regularly cleaning your case, and using a fresh contact solution for storage.
Additionally, make sure to clean your lenses thoroughly with each use. If you do not take proper precautionary measures concerning contact lens hygiene, the consequences of sleeping in your lenses will be compounded.
Is It Safe to Sleep in Contacts?
You might not think much of sleeping in contacts, but you should be aware of the potential complications. Your corneas interact with bacteria every day, but infections rarely occur. This is due to the fact that a healthy cornea plays a vital role in your eye’s natural defense mechanism against incoming contaminants. To function properly, your corneas need oxygen and hydration.
While awake, you blink to keep your eyes moist, allowing oxygen to come in through the natural tears you produce. Covering the surface of your eyes with contacts reduces how much moisture and oxygen your eyes can receive. Sleeping, even with extended wear lenses, maximizes these effects, causing your corneal cells to lose their ability to fight off bacteria.
What Happens If You Fall Asleep with Contacts In?
It’s possible to develop an eye infection from sleeping in contacts, and you may also experience some, or all, of the following:
Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye)
According to the American Optometric Association, conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, is one of the most common side effects of sleeping in your contacts. This results from inflammation in the conjunctiva, the part of the eye that covers the whites of your eye and the lining inside of your eyelids. A viral infection can also cause conjunctivitis and may result in cosmetic abnormalities such as discolored eyes that ooze. It can also be itchy, uncomfortable and generally unpleasant.
One step further is giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC), a particular form of pink eye that results in bumps forming along the inner surface of the eyelid. Those who wear contacts are most commonly impacted by this disease amd it makes the eyes very sensitive to light.
Falling asleep with your contacts in could also lead to keratitis. This inflammation is similar to conjunctivitis as it impacts the cornea, but it also causes damage to your vision. According to the Center for Contact Lens Research (CCLR), sleeping in contacts is linked to a 10x greater risk of developing microbial keratitis.
Infections of amoebae, fungi, and bacteria sometimes cause keratitis. Amoebic keratitis is the most extreme of the three and can result in vision loss. Keratitis can also cause corneal ulcers to develop, leading to the potential for permanent blindness if not treated properly.
- Bacterial Keratitis
This corneal infection stems from either Staphylococcus aureus or Pseudomonas aeruginosa; both are bacteria found on the human body and occur naturally in the environment. If you have extended-wear contact lenses, you’re more likely to develop bacterial keratitis.
Other risk factors include eye injury or a compromised immune system. The National Eye Institute notes that eye drops can treat infectious keratitis. In extreme cases, treatment often requires steroid eye drops. If you don’t treat bacterial keratitis promptly, it could result in your cornea being permanently scarred.
- Acanthamoeba Keratitis
This is inflammation of the cornea that stems from an infection caused by an amoeba. It can lead to vision loss or blindness; this amoeba is a single-celled organism that occurs naturally and is commonly found in bodies of water, tap water, soil, HVAC systems, and hot tubs.
- Fungal Keratitis
This is common in regions that have mild temperatures and tropical weather. Sleeping with contacts can increase your chances of developing fungal keratitis. However, most people develop it due to eye trauma from branches, sticks, or plants. If left untreated, this may result in permanent damage, including blindness.
Sleeping in contact lenses can also lead to corneal neovascularization. Even if you do your best to avoid developing an eye infection, the deprivation of oxygen that occurs when you wear contacts while you sleep can cause the eye to grow more blood vessels.
This occurs when your body tries to naturally increase the volume of blood supply to the cornea. Corneal neovascularization impacts your vision due to the blood vessels inhibiting light from normally traveling through your cornea.
Those who sleep with contact lenses are also at an increased risk of developing an eye ulcer. One study indicates that corneal ulcers are one of the main causes of blindness in the world. Corneal ulcers are small, open wounds on the cornea of the eye.
As soon as a contact lens sits over your cornea, it begins to deprive it of oxygen. This scenario is the ideal environment for bacteria to spread, break down the epithelium, resulting in an ulcer.
If you wear your contacts while you sleep or for an extended period of time, it can result in significant eye irritation. You may notice bumps forming underneath your eyelids. Giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC) results when the inside of your eyelid becomes irritated, red, and swollen. Those who wear contacts while they sleep are at the greatest risk of developing GPC. These bumps can cause your contacts to fit poorly, leading to other frustrating issues. If possible, avoid wearing your contacts for a week to see if your symptoms begin to improve.
Can You Nap While Wearing Contact Lenses?
Generally, no. This applies to all brands and types of lenses unless otherwise specified. Taking a nap with contacts can increase the risk of infection or irritation, as the lenses can collect pollutants, bacteria, and dirt while your eyes are closed.
This can result in conditions such as corneal ulcers and may cause long-term damage to your vision if left untreated. If you nap with contact lenses, they can become stuck under your eyelid, requiring professional removal.
What If I Accidentally Fall Asleep with Contact Lenses?
It happens to all of us at some point: you accidentally fall asleep with your contacts in. If you’ve slept with contacts in, don't panic! Should you wake up with dry eyes, we recommend using lubricating drops to help you remove the contact lenses immediately. We suggest blinking a few times to produce tears or using artificial tear drops.
Generally, sleeping with contact in for one night isn’t the end of the world. Give your eyes a full day of rest, and replace the lenses with your glasses for the day, if you have them. Be aware of any potential signs of infection, like redness, discharge, pain, blurred vision, excessive watering, and light sensitivity.
Signs of an Eye Infection
If you've been wearing your contacts overnight (or for a few nights), it’s not the end of the world if you stop now. However, if you start to experience any of the following, it is essential to visit an eyecare doctor:
- Eye pain
- Draining or eye redness
- Double vision
- Eye discharge
- Decreased vision
- Halos, or circles, around light
- Flashes of light
- Excessive tearing
- Itchy or burning eyes
- Floaters (specks that seem to float in front of your eyes)
Tips to Reduce the Risk of Eye Infections Related to Contacts
Falling asleep with contacts isn’t ideal, but it’s possible to reduce the risk of eye infections if you’re aware of these preventative measures.
If you wear contacts, keep these tips in mind:
- Always get a prescription for your contact lenses from an eye doctor, even if they are decorative and do not alter your vision. Contact lenses sold without a prescription violates the law and they could even be contaminated;
- Refresh your contact lens solution in your contacts lens case every day;
- If possible, avoid going to sleep in your contact lenses;
- If you’re wearing disposable contacts, don’t reuse them;
- Always take your contacts out before you swim;
- Don’t rub or touch your eyes if your hands are dirty;
- Replace disposable contact lenses often;
- Never share connections with anyone;
- Don’t buy fashion contact lenses;
- Use clean, sanitized hands when putting in or taking out your contacts;
- Lastly, a comprehensive eye exam is essential for contact lens wearers, as it ensures proper fitting, accurate prescription, checks for signs of eye health issues, and allows the doctor to evaluate overall eye health and provide necessary advice/treatment.
Even though contacts are beneficial, they can cause many problems if they’re not cared for or worn correctly. Do your best to follow the above guidelines.
The Bottom Line
It’s possible to develop an eye infection from sleeping with contacts, but it’s easy to reduce your risk of infection by being diligent in your contact lens routine. If possible, always ensure you remove your contact lenses before you go to bed. Getting eye exams in Chicago on a regular basis is another way to stay on top of your eye health. Get in touch with our team at the Kraff Eye Institute to learn more about how we can help!