When The Eyes Can’t Breathe

Sleep with contacts in

I called our family’s eye doctor when Chloe, our eldest daughter, forgot to remove her contact lenses before sleeping at a friend’s pajama party. Her eyes were red and itchy when she came home the next day. The doctor reminded us that our eyes need to breathe, too. Implications can arise when the eyes can’t breathe.

Wearing certain types of contact lenses during sleep may lead to a condition called ‘corneal hypoxia’, or lack of oxygen in the eyes.  Chloe knew of the risks that came with sleeping in contact lenses but she admits it wasn’t the first time she forgot to remove them!

Our eye doctor explained why it is risky to sleep wearing contact lenses, even when wearing lenses that are labelled “extended wear”. When we are awake, simply by blinking, our eyes get enough oxygen. However, this decreases dramatically when the eyelids are closed, meaning your eyes can’t breathe. Contacts when worn at night also stop the flow of tears. This can lead to dry eyes. When the eyes’ blood vessels are in dire need of oxygen for a long period of time, the blood vessels may grow abnormally which can lead to a condition called ‘corneal neovascularization’.

Extended wear contact lenses are made of more “breathable” or oxygen-permeable material that allows more oxygen to reach the eyes, compared to the regular kind. Some brands claim to allow five times more oxygen to enter the eyes compared to other lenses. While these extended wear types may be a better option for some people, the best solution is still removing contact lenses overnight.

In case of irritation and while waiting to meet with an eye doctor, here are some things you can do as first-aid:

  • Immediately remove the lenses
  • Give eyes a rest
  • Wear glasses if necessary

If there is someone in the family who can benefit from extended wear contacts, it is best to consider the pros and cons with an optometrist. The doctor will be able to monitor the eyes’ tolerance for overnight wear.


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