Almost anyone who wears contact lenses has drifted off at one point without removing them — it’s almost guaranteed to happen at least once to contacts-wearers. But if it’s happened to you, you might wonder just how bad it is to fall asleep with your contact lenses still in. Unfortunately, even just wearing your contacts for too long can be harmful, and falling asleep with them on is not recommended for eye health or your vision. If you’ve been sleeping in your contacts, even if you haven’t had any issues so far, here’s what you should know.
Is it safe to sleep in contact lenses?
In a word: no.
“It is definitely not safe to sleep in your contact lenses,” says Dr. Saya Nagori, ophthalmologist and CEO of EyeFacts. “Besides bacterial build-up, you are at risk for corneal ulcers, red eyes, and even vision problems, all of which can cause serious damage to the eyes and may even result in being unable to wear contacts again.”
Despite the risks, many people report sleeping in their contacts. There are approximately 45 million contacts wearers in the United States, and as many as one-third report sleeping or napping in their contact lenses. Of those, many reported not being aware or informed by the eye doctor that this was necessary. Others believed their brand or type of contact lens was acceptable for sleeping in. Still, others found it tedious to take them out every night.
What happens when I sleep in my contacts?
Initially, it was believed that your eyes needed rest and a break from your contacts. The thought was that contacts limited the amount of oxygen getting to your eyes, which led to eye doctors and contact developers recommending removing them at night for the health of your eyes.
Newer designs and types of contacts have improved and allow your eye to get more oxygen, but contacts keep bacteria, particles, and build-up in your eye. If you don’t properly care for your contacts daily, you risk infection and other eye- and vision-related issues. Infections can cause redness, pain, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and potential vision loss.
While some brands state they are okay for use during sleep or overnight, ophthalmologists and optometrists recommend that you always remove your contact lenses for sleep. And recent studies show that removing contacts is critical for keeping your eyes healthy.
Over the course of the day, we touch or rub our eyes, without even thinking about it. That contact, as well as environmental particulates, can introduce foreign matter and bacteria into our eyes. To maintain eye hygiene, eye doctors recommend that anyone wearing contact lenses remove and clean their contacts every night for healthy eyes.
Can sleeping in contacts cause damage or injury to my eye?
When you're in REM sleep, your eyes move quickly from side to side, mentions Nagori. Movement continues during other sleep stages, too. During sleep, your eyes make fewer tears, which are needed to keep them lubricated. Tears also protect your eyes from getting injured or scratched. So, when you wear contact lenses, your eyes may dry out faster and become irritated.
A lot of people tend to rub their eyes during sleep or when they wake up because they feel dry and don’t get enough oxygen. However, rubbing your eyes can make things worse by causing more friction and increasing the chances of getting an eye injury. This is especially true when contacts are in overnight, for long periods, or contacts become dry and can possibly become stuck to your eye.
Sleeping in your contacts can cause infections as well as injuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports sleeping in any kind of contact lenses — hard, soft, extended, or overnight — increases your risk of eye infection by six to eight times. These infections can put you at risk of serious eye injury or vision complications, including blindness.
At a minimum, there is a risk for pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses trapped by your contacts. Conjunctivitis causes swelling of the eyelids, itching, redness, irritation, green or yellow drainage, and may be painful.
Keratitis, inflammation of the cornea, is the most common infection that occurs with contact use and can be caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites, or viruses.
Most infections caused by contact lenses are bacterial and commonly caused by Staphylococcus aureus. This bacteria can develop from handling contacts without proper care, simply rubbing our eyes with dirty hands, or not cleaning contacts as directed.
Fungal infections are less common, but when they happen, they can put your vision at risk. Fungal keratitis may be treated with antifungal eye drops if diagnosed early. If not treated early, there is a high risk of blindness or corneal transplant surgery.
Corneal ulcers are commonly due to bacteria introduced by contacts. Corneal ulcers begin as infections that enter a crack in the surface of the eye. These ulcers are sudden and painful and need to be treated by an eye doctor.
The most common injuries caused by contacts are corneal abrasions or a scratch on the outside of your eye. Corneal abrasions cause redness and sensitivity to light and are painful. These scratches can also cause blurred or teary vision depending on where they are on the eye. It may feel like something irritating is in your eye. If you suspect a corneal abrasion, make an appointment with your eye doctor right away and try not to touch your eye in the meantime. Rubbing makes the pain — and the injury — worse.
What should I do if I sleep in my contacts regularly?
If you regularly sleep in your contacts, Nagori recommends you stop the practice immediately. Sleeping in your contacts reduces oxygen to the eye and allows bacteria and particles to build up and become trapped against your eye. This can result in long-term damage to your eyes. Just because you haven’t had an infection yet doesn’t mean you won’t get one. Sleeping in your contacts regularly increases your risk of developing an infection. It’s not too late to start proper eye hygiene.
What if I just nap in my contacts?
Sleeping in your contacts for any stretch of time, whether it's accidental or intentional, increases your risk of injury or infection. No matter how brief, napping in contacts is still risky and not recommended.
“It may seem like a hassle to take out your contacts, but napping with them can still cause damage,” Nagori says. “When your eyes are shut with contacts in, you’re depriving them of oxygen. This is still true with newer contacts that allow more oxygen to enter.”
What should I do if I sleep in my contacts accidentally?
“If you ever accidentally sleep in your contacts, make sure to remove them right away to allow more oxygen in,” says Nagori. Be sure to wash your hands, then make sure you can easily remove them. If they are stuck or difficult to remove, don’t pull them. Use eye drops or tears to hydrate them and gently remove them.
If you’ve slept in your contacts, once you remove them, stay alert for signs of infection. “If you don't notice any swelling, ensure your eyes produce enough tears,” advises Nagori. “If not, use eye drops. It would be best to abstain from wearing contacts for a day or two. If you do notice any swelling, wait longer and see a doctor if the conditions don't improve.”
What to do if I think I have an eye problem from my contacts?
If you notice any problems with your eyes or are concerned about sleeping in your contact lenses, get in touch with your eye doctors. Any concerns about your eye health should be evaluated promptly to assess the condition of your eyes, address any potential complications, and recommend the most suitable course of action to ensure the continued health and comfort of your eyes. Most importantly, being proactive with your eye health is what matters most. Prevent long-term damage by following a proper, consistent eye hygiene routine, and see your eye doctor if you have any concerns.