Putting in your contacts should be a pretty seamless process: You wash and dry your hands, fish your lenses out of their package or their storage case, put them into your eyes, then embrace sparklingly clear vision. But sometimes putting in your contacts causes an intense burning sensation. What’s up with that?
The outermost layer of your cornea (the clear, dome-shaped surface of your eye) is called the epithelium, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). It’s filled with thousands of nerve endings, which is why your eyes can be more sensitive than that iconic “I just have a lot of feelings” character in Mean Girls. So, it’s normal for you to experience a bit of a sensation, even a slightly uncomfortable one, right as you put in your contacts, Alisha Fleming, O.D., an optometrist at Penn Medicine, tells SELF. “Anything more severe isn’t ideal,” she says. That includes a searing flash of pain. Here are seven things that might cause burning when you insert your contacts.
1. Your lens is dirty.
This is one of the biggest causes of burning after inserting a contact lens, Dr. Fleming says: An eyelash, dust, lint, or even flecks of makeup could be stuck on your lens and bothering you.
If you feel any burning (or other irritation) when you put in a contact, you should take out the lens immediately, Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an optometrist and contact lens specialist with UCLA Health, tells SELF. Then inspect it. “If there is obviously something stuck to the lens surface or if there is a tear in the lens, throw it away,” 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. If you can’t see anything amiss, you can rinse it with saline solution and try again. If it still burns, it’s time to trash that lens, Dr. Fogt says.
2. Something like soap was on your hands when you inserted your contact.
So, you washed your hands before you put in your lenses? Excellent! Except…when you don’t wash off all the soap and end up burning your eyeballs.
It’s not just soap you have to worry about, Dr. Fogt says: “Hand sanitizer really stings if you’ve used it recently and then applied a contact lens to your eye.” And if you didn’t clean your hands before you put in your contacts, something like lotion could still be on your fingers and make your eyes sizzle a bit. Bottom line: Be sure to thoroughly wash and dry your hands before attempting to put in your lenses.
3. You have allergies.
Ocular allergies (also called allergic conjunctivitis) can cause issues like burning, itching, and eye pain, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). “If you add a contact lens to an eye with allergy symptoms, it can make the symptoms even worse,” Dr. Fogt says. On the flip side, addressing your allergies can make wearing contacts more comfortable.
To treat ocular allergies, the AAAAI recommends trying to avoid your triggers if you can, using saline solution to wash allergens from your eyes (like if you’re allergic to pollen and were just outside), and using antihistamines to reduce symptoms. If your allergies are pretty severe, your doctor may recommend more intensive treatment, like corticosteroid eye drops to try to reduce inflammation.
4. Your eyes are super dry.
If you often have dry eyes, you probably already have some level of discomfort. Symptoms like burning, dryness, and stinging might be pretty familiar. But adding a contact lens on top of that can leave in you serious pain. “Sometimes people have mild eye problems that are tolerable most of the time, but adding a contact lens exacerbates the problem,” Dr. Fogt says.
If your eyes are dry as hell and you’re having a hard time wearing your contacts, talk to your doctor about trying a different type. Some are actually designed to help people with dry eyes retain as much ocular moisture as possible, the Mayo Clinic says. You can also avoid things that make dry eye worse, like zombie-ing out in front of your computer for hours on end or sleeping in your contacts, and keep moisturizing eye drops on hand.
5. You have eyelid inflammation.
There are a few different reasons why you might develop blepharitis, including a bacterial infection on your eyelids, an allergic reaction to your makeup, or oil-producing glands in your eyelids becoming clogged. Whatever the cause, blepharitis can leave you with scratchy eyes, swollen eyelids, flaky eyelid skin, burning, stinging, and feeling like something is stuck your eyes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Putting contacts on top of that is just going to feel like utter garbage.
Treatment for blepharitis ultimately depends on what’s causing it in the first place. You can use a warm compress to try to get rid of any crusty discharge along your lash line and to help fight irritation and inflammation, the Mayo Clinic says. But you may need antibiotic drops to combat a bacterial infection or corticosteroid eye drops to deal with inflammation. Your doctor can help figure out what’s behind your blepharitis and how to make it go away ASAP.
6. Your poor eyeballs are sunburned.
Just like you can get a sunburn on your skin, you can get one on your eyes. This is called photokeratitis or ultraviolet keratitis, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and it’ll definitely feel like your eyes are in The Bad Place.
Photokeratitis happens when you’ve taken in enough ultraviolet rays from the sun to affect your cornea and conjunctiva (the membrane covering the insides of your eyelids and whites of your eyes), the Cleveland Clinic says. This can leave you with redness, eye pain, tearing, blurry vision, light sensitivity, a gritty feeling in your eyes, and even a temporary loss of vision.
Imagine slapping a contact lens on top of that, and you’ll understand why the nerves in your epithelium might revolt by causing a burning feeling. If you have photokeratitis, it’s best to avoid wearing your contacts until your eyes heal (typically within a few days), the Cleveland Clinic says. You can also put a cold washcloth over your eyes to help the burning feeling subside and take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers for the pain.
7. Something scratched your eye.
This is known as a corneal abrasion, and pretty much anything can cause it, including dust, dirt, sand, bits of wood or metal, or even the edge of a piece of paper. (Do you hear us screaming?)
A contact lens is another potential corneal-abrasion cause. (Picture having dry eyes, sleeping in your contacts, then trying to remove one that’s stuck to your cornea.) Contacts can also exacerbate existing corneal abrasions. Whatever the case of your corneal abrasion, this phenomenon can lead to eye pain, a gritty feeling in your eye, tearing, redness, sensitivity to light, and a headache. It’s also possible to have a minor scratch and not realize it, then put in a contact lens and feel like someone slapped you in the eye.
Luckily, you shouldn’t have to suffer for long. Corneal abrasions usually heal in a day or two, the Mayo Clinic says. Even with that speedy healing time, it’s a good idea to try to see a doctor since corneal abrasions can become infected and cause even more issues if they’re not treated.
In the meantime, you can try to ease the pain by rinsing out your eye with clean water or saline solution, blinking a lot (this can help remove tiny, stubborn particles), and pulling your upper eyelid over your lower one. This can make your eyes pump out more tears to flush away debris, or your lashes might help sweep away any obtrusive pieces of matter, the Mayo Clinic explains.
If you’re regularly dealing with burning eyeballs after putting in your contacts and you’re not sure what’s going on, give your lenses a time-out and see your eye doctor. They should be able to get to the root of the issue so your eyes don’t lose their cool every time you insert contacts.