Contact Lens Solutions: Allergy to Preservatives

What is an allergy to preservatives?

Allergies are a reaction your body has to things it sees as harmful. Sometimes the body’s immune system treats chemicals in contact lens solutions as though they are harmful. The immune system tries to protect you by making antibodies. These antibodies cause the body’s cells to release chemicals such as histamines, which can cause many symptoms.

What is the cause?

Preservatives in contact lens solutions are usually the problem. They can remain in soft contact lenses after cleaning and disinfecting. Or they can coat the surface of gas permeable (GP) lenses. Reactions to preservatives 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?

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 medical history and examine 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.

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 take care of myself?

You can use eyedrops to help relieve the redness, itching, and watering of your eyes. Check with your provider to see what type of drops you should use.

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:
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2013-12-05
Last reviewed: 2014-10-27
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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