If you’re playing in the water this summer, you probably know to protect your skin from the sun, but do you know to protect your eyes?
Many people are not aware that summer fun with pools, sand, and high-impact sports provides prime circumstances for contracting corneal infections—especially if you wear contact lenses.
Dr. Steven Stetson, medical director of Diamond Vision in Manhattan, says that the majority of patients who come to see him for corneal inflammation (also known as keratitis) wear contact lenses.
Symptoms of corneal infection include blurry vision, redness, pain, discharge (anything from increased tears to mucus), and increased light sensitivity.
Playing Safe With Contact Lenses
One of the best ways to prevent waterborne eye infections is to remove your contacts before getting in the water. A splash of contaminated water in your eye can bring a host of bacteria and fungi, and the space between your cornea and contact lens creates the ideal environment for them to thrive.
“Any time you’re using contacts in water, there’s a hygiene issue,” Dr. Stetson said. “The most popular [bacteria] thrive in high toxicity, low oxygen environments, which contact lenses tend to create.”
If you must wear contacts while in the water, replace them with new ones immediately after the water activity, Dr. Stetson said. If the reason you can’t forgo contacts while in the water is because your prescription is too high, he recommends considering laser refraction surgery, such as Lasik.
“It’s always better to have your own eyes doing the work, not plastic, which does a good job holding onto pollens and organisms,” Dr. Stetson said.
If you swim or play high velocity water sports in lakes, you may very well end the day with algae and pollen in your eyes.
If you react to the pollen in lakes, you may expect some redness that persists into the next day. If this happens, you may need to call an optometrist for anti-allergy drops.
It’s also a good idea to take your contacts out while doing sports like water-skiing and wakeboarding because if, for example, you end up doing a face-plant, you not only run the risk of black eyes, but also having of your contacts knocked out by the impact.
Preventing Sun and Sand Trauma
In the summer, the sun is more intense. Although your eyes don’t burn, they can suffer from low-grade inflammation due to solar radiation.
This can cause the elastic tissues to degenerate and bumps to form on the cornea. Dr. Stetson recommends wearing wraparound sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection to protect your eyes from solar radiation damage.
As for sunscreen, it’s all right to use it around your eyes, but be careful not to get the cream in them. If you get sunscreen in your eyes, Dr. Stetson recommends immediately rinsing with artificial tears. You should also rinse your eyes well if you get sweat in them.
When playing ball sports, especially in dusty or sandy places, you should also wear wraparound sunglasses to block irritant-laden wind and particles—if not the ball itself.
One of the most severe—but luckily very rare—cause of eye infections is the acanthamoeba, a protozoa commonly found in dust and fresh water.
The acanthamoeba loves to attach itself to tissue with rough surface cells—such as eyes that have been scarred by wearing contact lenses.
The initial symptoms of an acanthamoeba infection are like those of a mild keratitis, and the only way to diagnose early stages of the infection is through analysis of cysts scraped off the cornea.
An acanthamoeba infection is very difficult to diagnose and treat, Dr. Stetson said.
“It’s clinically hard to see many of the signs, and you’d need to find the cysts and then treat them with medicines by special order.”
Although an acanthamoeba infection is rare, it is much more likely to occur in contact lens wearers. A 2009 study published in the library of the National Institutes of Health found that over 95 percent of acanthamoeba infections occur in contact lens wearers.
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