What Is Contact Lens Intolerance? Know the Signs

Published by Drew Dickson, MD on August 16, 2023

Even if you have never heard of CLI, odds are you have experienced it if you have worn contact lenses for any length of time. Many of the approximately 41 million contact lens users in the United States will suffer CLI at some point.

CLI stands for Contact Lens Intolerance, and it is exactly what it sounds like. It is your eyes’ “rejection” of contact lenses to the point that wearing them is intolerable. Here’s what you need to know about CLI.

What does CLI feel like?

Contact lens intolerance can be uncomfortable, even painful. The symptoms can mimic other conditions such as dry eye syndrome, and include:

  • Dryness
  • Itching
  • Eye pain
  • Redness
  • Excessive tears

Many people with CLI also report a gritty or foreign body sensation that feels as though they have debris stuck in their eye.

Why does contact lens intolerance happen?

Contact lens intolerance most commonly happens with long-term contact wear. Modern contact lenses are designed to allow oxygen to pass through to the cornea to keep eyes healthy and well-functioning. However, overuse can cause contacts to become contaminated with dirt, bacteria, fungus and more that block oxygen. This can cause eyes to become irritated every time those lenses are inserted.

In some cases, an individual may develop a sensitivity to a component of the lens or to the cleaning solution.

Am I at risk of contact lens intolerance?

Poor contact lens hygiene is the greatest contributor to CLI. To reduce your own risk of developing contact lens intolerance, avoid these bad contact lens habits:

  • Cleaning or storing contacts in tap water
  • Sleeping or napping while wearing contacts
  • Wearing contaminated or damaged contacts
  • Handling contact lenses with unwashed hands
  • Topping off cleaning solution instead of replacing it
  • Wearing contacts in the shower or during watersports
  • Wearing lenses for too long or not wearing as recommended

Work with your ophthalmologist on a plan to ensure your contact lenses stay sterile and undamaged.

What happens if CLI goes untreated?

Left untreated, contact lens intolerance can cause eye injury or complications, either directly or as a result of rubbing the eyes in an effort to relieve itching and grittiness. This can result in corneal abrasions, corneal ulcers, microtears in eye tissues, or even sight-threatening infections.

If you experience any of these symptoms and can’t get relief, make an appointment with an ophthalmologist. Your eye doctor can confirm the diagnosis and provide a treatment plan to get you comfortable again.

If CLI consistently returns or becomes progressively worse, you may have no choice but to ditch contact lenses altogether. You can then correct your vision with prescription eyeglasses, LASIK or a LASIK alternative.

Can LASIK cure contact lens intolerance?

Technically there is not a cure for CLI, but the uncomfortable symptoms can usually be treated easily. After treatment, the only reliable way to keep contact lens intolerance from returning is to stop using contact lenses. In that sense, LASIK prevents CLI by eliminating the need for contacts entirely.

As modern vision correction specialists, we at Kugler Vision are committed to serving our patients’ needs on the journey to a life free from visual barriers. Take the first step with a thorough eye analysis and find out if you qualify for Modern LASIK or one of our 5 other advanced vision correction treatments.

Ever heard of Contact Lens Intolerance? If you wear contacts, you may already be experiencing it. Learn all about CLI (and what you can do about it) here.

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