In a perfect world, your contacts would seamlessly meld onto your eyeballs without ever causing you discomfort. In reality, sometimes it can feel like your contacts, in a mission to aggravate your eyeballs, are wearing the tiniest, scratchiest wool sweaters of all time.
Here are some of the biggest issues that could be behind your scratchy lenses, along with how to fix them.
1. You have dry eye.
This can cause a bunch of symptoms including dryness, itchiness, and scratchiness, and wearing contacts can just make it all worse, Jennifer Fogt, O.D., fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and an associate professor in the College of Optometry at The Ohio State University, tells SELF.
As a foreign body, contacts can irritate and dry out your eyes no matter how great your ocular health typically is. “Adding a contact lens to an eye that is already dry makes this condition even more uncomfortable,” Dr. Fogt says. This is especially true if you do something like work at a computer all day, because you’ll naturally blink less often than you should when staring at a screen for prolonged periods, the NEI explains, which is why your contacts might feel especially bothersome as you wrap up the workday.
If you’re really struggling with dry eye, it’s probably best to get that sorted before you wear your contacts again, Dr. Fogt says. Treatment typically starts with artificial tears that can add moisture to your eyes, along with making lifestyle changes like wearing sunglasses when it’s windy outside. Your doctor can help you determine what will help your eyes the most.
2. You have allergies.
When you have allergies, interacting with a trigger like pollen, dust mites, or mold will prompt the cells in your immune system to release chemicals that lead to symptoms such as itchy, weepy, and overall terrible-feeling eyes, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI).
If you use contacts, that can take the scratchiness up a notch. Contact lenses can trap allergens and hold them against your eyeballs, Carolyn Duong, O.D., an ophthalmologist with UCLA Health, tells SELF, which can make symptoms flare up. If you use your lenses for days on end, these allergens can build up on them over time, particularly if you’re, ahem, not the best at cleaning your contacts or your case. (That’s why Dr. Duong often recommends that people with bad allergies wear daily disposable lenses they can chuck at the end of the day.)
One major part in treating your allergies is staying as far away from your allergens as you humanly can. If that’s not enough (or not possible), your doctor may recommend anti-allergy medications in the form of eye drops, pills, nasal sprays, and the like, according to the Mayo Clinic. Depending on the severity of your allergies, you may also be a candidate for allergy shots, which train your body to be less responsive to your triggers over time.
3. Something on or under your contact is causing scratchiness.
If something is stuck under your contact lens, it can irritate the nerves in your cornea (the clear, outer dome of your eye), and you can feel all kinds of symptoms like pain, burning, or scratchiness, Dr. Duong says. If it’s on top of your contact, it could irritate the inside of your eyelid, resulting in a similar outcome. Either way, that irritation can build as time passes, making scratchiness that was barely noticeable in the morning seriously intense by the end of the day, Dr. Duong says.
If you think you have something in your eye, your first step should be to take out your contact, Dr. Duong says. If your symptoms persist and you see anything embedded in your eye, get to your eye doctor’s office right away to get it removed.
If your eye is still irritated but you can’t see anything stuck in there, wash your hands and fill up a small drinking glass with water or saline solution, the Mayo Clinic advises. Then, rest the glass against the bone under your eye socket and pour the liquid over your eye to try to rinse out whatever is in there. You can also hop in the shower and let lukewarm water run over your forehead while holding your eye open.
After that, if you’re still dealing with scratchiness and other symptoms, see your eye doctor for help.
4. Your makeup is messing with your contacts.
Like any other bits of matter, flecks of makeup can get trapped on or under your lens, Dr. Fogt says. Cue the scratchiness. Your makeup could also cause an allergic reaction in your eyeballs that intensifies over the course of the day, Dr. Duong says.
This is why Dr. Duong recommends putting on your eye makeup after your contacts—it cuts down on the chance that anything could slip under your lenses. Even then, it’s a good idea to opt for products that you know won’t budge and to try to avoid applying makeup on your waterline, where it has easy access to your eyeballs, Dr. Duong says.
If you have your lenses in and you can spot makeup on them or your eyes start feeling scratchy and you think your makeup may be to blame, wash your hands, take out your lenses, clean them, and see where that gets you, Dr. Duong says. If your eyes react again once you put your lenses back in, you should probably swap them out for a fresh pair.
5. Something scratched your eye.
This is called a corneal abrasion, and symptoms include a gritty, scratchy feeling, pain, redness, tearing, sensitivity to light, a headache, and feeling like something’s in your eye, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Throwing a contact on top of a corneal abrasion could do one of two things, Dr. Duong says: It could irritate your eye even more, or it could act like an adhesive bandage and make it feel a little better until you remove the lens, which you should always do promptly if your eye feels weird.
If your eye is still acting up sans contact, rinse it out with clean water or saline solution, blink a bunch of times in case your tear film can wash away the debris, or try pulling your lower eyelid over your upper eyelid to add more moisture to the situation, the Mayo Clinic advises.
Most corneal abrasions heal in a few days, but you want to try to see an eye doctor if you can since these scratches can become infected, Dr. Fogt says. Also, try to avoid wearing your contacts until things start to feel better.
6. Your contacts don’t fit well, or they do but you’re wearing them for too long.
Contacts seem like a one-size-fits-all device, but they’re not. If yours don’t fit properly, they can irritate or even scratch your eye, Dr. Duong says.
This is why it’s important to see your eye doctor frequently enough to keep your prescription up to date. The American Optometric Association recommends people 18 to 60 who use contacts get an eye exam every one to two years. Ask your eye doctor how often you should come in based on your eye health.
Even if your prescription is perfect, wearing your contacts longer than you should can lead to irritation, dryness, and scratchiness. Follow your doctor’s instructions when it comes to how often you should wear a new pair of lenses.
7. Your eyelid is inflamed.
This is a condition known as blepharitis, and a bunch of things can cause it, like a bacterial infection on your eyelids, an allergic reaction to your makeup, or the glands that form the oily layer your tear film becoming clogged, the Mayo Clinic says. No matter the cause, if you have blepharitis, you may deal with swollen and greasy eyelids, stinging and burning, crust along your lashline, flaky eyelid skin and, yup, scratchiness.
Wearing your contacts when you have blepharitis can be uncomfortable because this condition can cause dryness, according to the Mayo Clinic. Plus, blepharitis-induced flakes of eyelid skin and bits of crust can get trapped on top of or under your lenses and lead to even more irritation, Dr. Duong says.
If you have blepharitis, the Mayo Clinic advises giving your contacts a few days off and using a warm compress to try to get rid of any crustiness and soothe irritation. You’ll also want to see your eye doctor since the best way to treat the condition depends on what’s causing it in the first place—you might need antibiotics for a bacterial infection or prescription eye drops to tackle inflammation, for example.
8. Your cornea is inflamed.
Keratitis, or an inflammation of your cornea, can happen because of an infection involving bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites, according to the Mayo Clinic. A minor eye injury from something like wearing your contact lenses for too long can also cause it. No matter how it originates, keratitis can lead to scratchiness, redness, pain, blurry or decreased vision, and a feeling that something is in your eye, among other symptoms.
Slapping a contact lens on top of an already inflamed cornea is not going to do your symptoms any favors, Dr. Duong says. “You just need to take the lens out and let the eye breathe,” she says. Then, see your eye doctor. Since a range of things can cause keratitis, potential treatments include eye drops or oral medications containing antibiotic, antifungal, or antiviral drugs. Keratitis can cause permanent vision damage when it’s left untreated, so if you think you have it, don’t hesitate to seek help.