Swimming Hazards For Contact Lens Wearers

Summer is here … at last!

If you are reading this in the UK, then you are just as likely to be in ‘shorts and T shirt mode’ as reaching for your sweater and woolly socks as the English summer – as usual – revels in its unpredictability. But whether at home or abroad, let’s assume that for some days – or, if we’re lucky, weeks even – we will all have the desire and opportunity to get wet.

Watersports can be fraught with eye health concerns

On a hot day nothing compares to a cooling and refreshing dip as we flock to the beach, water parks and swimming pools. Whether it’s a restrained shore line paddle, a therapeutic breast stroke, splashy butterfly, dynamic racing crawl or -if it takes your fancy – there’s always diving, snorkelling and water skiing to enjoy.

Of course, all are fun activities and, for those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy good eye sight or have had Laser Eye Surgery, they are carefree pastimes. However, for those who are still juggling glasses and contact lenses, anything related to swimming is fraught with concerns.

Over the years I have listened to the stories of many London Vision Clinic patients and shared their post surgery joys. Frequently these include the thrill of being able to fully embrace water sports. Even ophthalmic surgeon Glenn Carp, who had his short sightedness and astigmatism corrected by Dr Dan in 2004, knows exactly what this feels like.

“Before I had my surgery I used goggles with special lenses for swimming and I also had lenses fitted to my mask for scuba diving.”

But, even these aids provided a far from satisfactory solution.

“When I was sprint training, the goggles would fill with water and I could never see the time  or second hand on the swimming pool clock so I had to have a small clock at the end of my swimming lane so that I could time the 15 to 20 second breaks between sprints.

“It was also difficult to see properly when walking across the beach before scuba diving… it would have looked odd to have worn the mask!”

This reminds me of the scene in Notting Hill where the Hugh Grant character can’t find his glasses before his first date with Julia Roberts; and ends up wearing his diving mask in the cinema. So, obviously, Glenn was in good – if slightly goofy – company.

Aha, I hear you thinking, this might be all very sad, but why don’t the sight impaired water lovers use contact lenses?

The answer is simple:  contact lenses and swimming do not mix. In fact, together they can add up to a dangerous combination which may lead to serious eye injuries.

The worst culprit is a tiny, one-celled, water-living bug called Acanthamoeba. This naturally occurring amoeba is found in water sources such as tap water, well water, hot tubs, swimming pools, and soil as well as sewage systems. They are extremely hardy and appear to be resistant to chlorine or even boiling the water.  If these parasites infect the eye, a potentially serious condition known as Acanthamoeba keratitis, results.

Glenn explains: “Although the cornea is very robust, if it has a tiny abrasion or break in the surface, these little bugs can get in. Treatment is very difficult and it can take years – if ever – for the cornea to repair itself. In extreme cases it might even require a corneal graph or transplant. Contact lens wearers are especially susceptible.”

Bacterial infections, although treatable with antibiotics, can also be a risky side effect of wearing contact lenses.

“The lenses themselves are non-organic” explains Glenn “and bugs can stick to their surface causing eye infections especially during extended use. This can affect the health of the epithelium (which forms the layer over the cornea).

“Daily use, disposable, contact lenses  are a healthier option.”