Contact Lens Solutions: Allergy to Preservatives

What is an allergy to preservatives?

Allergies are a reaction by the body's immune system to normally harmless substances that it sees as harmful. Some substances in contact lens solutions can cause this response.

What is the cause?

When substances in contact lens solutions come in contact with your eyes, it can cause an allergic reaction. Preservatives are usually the problem. They can remain in soft contact lenses after cleaning and disinfecting. Or they can coat the surface of gas permeable ("hard") lenses. In many people, a preservative called thimerosal causes this reaction. Reactions to thimerosal and other chemicals may develop at any time, even after you have used the same contact lens products for months or years. Many people who have these reactions have no history of other types of allergies.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms may include:

  • itchy eyes
  • watering eyes
  • red eyes
  • eyelid swelling

How is it diagnosed?

Your eye care provider will ask about your symptoms and check your eyes.

How is it treated?

You may need to stop wearing your contact lenses for a time. Your contact lenses must be cleaned of preservatives that may be bound to them. This may require repeated soaking, first in distilled water and then in saline solution. Sometimes your lenses may need professional cleaning. You may even need to get new lenses.

Once your lenses are clean, your eye care provider may want you to use a different method of disinfecting your lenses.

How can I take care of myself?

You can use eyedrops to help relieve the redness, itching, and watering of your eyes. You can buy some eyedrops without a prescription. Check with your provider to see what type of drops is right for you.

How long will the effects last?

Most people with allergies to lens solutions are able to wear contacts again without problems. However, people who continue to have problems may want to consider daily-wear disposable contact lenses. These lenses are thrown out after being worn for 1 day.

How can I prevent allergies to contact lens solutions?

When you start wearing your contacts again, use products labeled "Sensitive Eyes" or "Thimerosal-Free." Check the product label to be sure that the products you use do not contain the chemicals that may cause your allergies.

Reviewed for medical accuracy by faculty at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins. Web site:

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