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What Happens if I Wear My Contacts Too Long?

About three times a week, I treat patients who have developed eye infections due to extended wear contact lenses. Although extended wear lenses are safe, wearing them longer than they are intended is not. Patients often tell me they are trying to save money, and some suspect that eye doctors and contact manufacturers recommend more frequent replacement in order to boost profits. My concern here is only for the wellness of your eyes.

Since I encounter this problem frequently, I present here a graphically accurate (yet PG rated) description of what happens to your eyes when you do not follow the care and replacement schedule for your extended wear contact lenses. Hopefully this information will help my readers prevent permanent damage to their vision, and maintain the overall health of their eyes.

A Closer Look at Your Contact Lenses

Structurally, a contact lens is similar to a kitchen sponge. It is porous, allowing it to absorb and transfer fluids, gasses and debris toward and away from your eye. Like a sponge, your contacts collect and trap various contaminants; however, as your kitchen sponge ages and collects contaminants such as food and grime, you notice that it becomes less absorbent, appears to dry out, and starts to smell as bacteria grows within the pores. All of these indicators let you know when it is time to throw that old sponge away and get a new one out of the package.

Contact lenses age in a similar way, so it is important that they are replaced before they begin to house bacteria. Similar to the kitchen sponge, prolonged use of your contacts results in decreased performance and eventually a severe threat to the health of your eyes.

Remember, whether it be your kitchen sponge or your contact lenses, when you take a new one out of the package, that is as clean as it is ever going to be.

Let Your Eyes Breath

Fresh contact lenses promote two things that are essential for healthy eyes. They allow essential oxygen from the atmosphere to pass through the lens toward the eye. At the same time, mucus and cell waste migrate away from the eye. Over time, external contaminants such as pollutants, smoke, and dust continue to clog the lens’ pores. Meanwhile, natural enzymes, mucus and other biological debris clog the lens’ pores from the inside. As the clogging progresses, your lenses lose porosity and harden, like your old kitchen sponge. When this happens, the transfer of oxygen and waste shuts down and trouble begins.

Eye Diagram

Source: National Eye Institute

Oxygen is crucial to the health of your eyes. The cornea is protected by a thin layer of cells. These cells survive on oxygen drawn from the atmosphere. If these cells are deprived of oxygen, they quickly become swollen and weak, and expose the cornea to bacteria. If your lenses are not allowing oxygen in, then they are not letting bacteria out.

The tissue of your eyes sustains itself like any other living tissue. Cells grow and produce more cells. As a result, biological waste is produced. Your clogged contact lenses trap this waste against your eye tissue. The tissue is then literally living in its own filth and becomes an ideal breading ground for bacteria.


Once the cells covering the cornea become weak, they are further damaged by the worn lenses themselves. Clogged and hardened lenses easily damage the weakened cells, separating them from the cornea. The damage can be compounded by any debris trapped behind the lens. Eventually, tiny abrasions or cuts are formed allowing bacteria to directly penetrate the cornea. Infection can occur whenever bacteria is allowed to attach itself to eye tissue. Once bacteria penetrates the cornea, it can eat completely through the tissue in as little as 24 hours. This causes irreversible vision loss and could result in the loss of an eye (or two).

What to Watch For

The most important thing to pay attention to and follow is your contact lenses’ care and replacement schedule. Other than that, your lenses should feel comfortable. Your eyes should look healthy. And as always, your vision should be clear. If you experience any prolonged discomfort, redness, or change in vision, contact your optometrist today.

Dr. Jeff Pinkerton
I care for you.

This Post Has 11 Comments

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  4. Dean Limbert

    Hello–I hope you can help me–I know I have worn my contacts way too long–they are extended wear and I rinsed them daily(or every other)–but I have been out of work for awhile and simply did(do) not have the money to replace them and my glasses got broke awhile ago-I used to wear my glasses for a week between my monthly contacts to give my eyes a break-what my concern is-is when I removed my contacts last-Today to clean them–I noticed the outer layer(cornea?) appears to be grooved where my contacts rest–I have not had any serious issues with them except in the last week or so they haven’t been coming as clean and clear as they had been–so I know they are beyond using–I will not be able replace them this time as it will be between rent& bills and contacts(no contest)–what do I do now?my prescription was 20/200 so I wont be able to drive to look for work and it also wont look so hot trying to hold an application 6 inches from my face just to read it–sorry for rambling–if you could just tell me if I have seriously messed my eyes up i would appreciate it–thanks in advance

    1. Dawn

      Apologies for the delayed reply – just found out that a lot of comments are being routed to the wrong place so I am seeing this for the first time. I hope your situation has improved and that you have been able to address your problem. If not, write back and I’ll respond promptly. Suffice it to say, your vision is priceless. Dr. P

  5. Jessica

    I have a question what if i wear my contacts for longer than a month and dont take them out? What will happen to my eyes? I realize up above it says that ill go blind but is there a way to reverse the up above symptom if its like at the unhealthy eye stage but not bad enough to mess with my vision? But bad enough to wear when i wear the contacts there never truelly focused on my eye? And i took my contact out like 4 days ago and the blood vessils havent retreated yet how can i get them healthy again? And is it safe to wear a new contact at this point or would it make it worse? Thnx all help and answers eill help thnx

    1. Dawn Klingensmith

      Dr. Pinkerton can’t assess the extent of the problem without seeing you, but inflamed blood vessels are a sign of infection. You should see an eye doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment and don’t allow the condition to worsen.

  6. Elizabeth

    I recently started wearing contacts,everything was fine until one day my eyes started to water a lot.i took my contacts out and after that my eyes where so sensitive to light that I could not open my eyes.i took me 2 days to recover.i don’t have glasses to use,so I had to use my contacts again to be able to drive safe.again my corneas got red around so I took my contacts the problem with my contacts or do I just have pink eye?thank you in advance for your help!

    1. Rick Klingensmith

      From Dr. Pinkerton: Anyone who wears contact lenses should have a backup pair of glasses, as contacts aren’t meant to be worn 24/7. Having said that, redness and discomfort are your body’s way of signaling there’s a problem. You should see your eye doctor to get to the bottom of it. Good luck!

  7. Chelle

    I’ve had my contacts in longer than I should. The problem I’m having is when I do take them out to clean and to give my eyes a rest, my eyes feel very uncomfortable without them. Almost as if I have a lash on my eye balls or something under my lids. So irritating that it causes me to rub it. My eyes dry quickly and turns red. HELP??

    1. Rick Klingensmith

      I can’t know for certain what’s going on without an exam; however, when you wear your contact lenses too long, they can damage the front of your eye (cornea). You may also have an ocular surface disease. In either case, contact lenses can sometimes mask the conditions in the beginning, only to allow them to develop over time into a problem that can damage your eyesight. A quick fix likely won’t help. You need to go back to your eye doctor for help with your problem. Good luck, and please report back. (Submitted on behalf of Dr. P.)

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