Can Kids Wear Contacts?
Rather than ask “what age can my child wear contact lenses?”, it may be more appropriate to ask “is my child ready for contact lenses?”
When start contact lens wear is not a matter of age. The decision to start wearing contacts comes from understanding the positive benefits versus understanding the importance of good hygiene and care to minimize complication risk.
What are the benefits of contact lens for children and teenagers?
Better Vision – some contact lenses provide sharper vision than glasses. This is especially true for keratoconus and other corneal problems.
For people with large differences in prescription between their eyes, glasses can be uncomfortable or the prescription is often altered to make the glasses easier to wear. Contact lenses can provide better balance in the prescription between the two eyes, not just in appearance but better visual balance for improved visual comfort and performance.
Additionally, with contact lenses you are also always looking through the centre which is the ideal part of the lens.
Better Peripheral Vision – there are some obvious limitations to the periphery with glasses. The spectacle frame itself as well as limitations in how big the lenses are. Different visual conditions impact on peripheral vision in different ways. In spectacles, longsighted lenses magnify the world and in doing so block out part of the visual field peripherally. Whereas shortsighted lenses make the world look smaller and also create a double image at the edge of the lens. Contact lenses eliminates these effects.
For Sports – on top of the obvious benefits of better vision and improved peripheral vision, contact lenses don’t fog like glasses. Glasses also slip and bounce created unstable vision and are likely to reduce confidence in making a play due to this, or simply to avoid the glasses getting knocked off or broken. Contact lens may increase the participation in sporting or active leisure activities.
Self Esteem – children and teenagers are spoilt for choice when it comes to glasses nowadays and in our experience getting glasses isn’t as big a deal as it once was. Despite this, recent research has shown that children have improved self perceptions about their physical appearance, athletic competence and social acceptance when switching to contact lenses1. Sometimes you just more comfortable with how you look without glasses.
Prescription Control – Myopia, also known as shortsight or nearsight, is often a progressive condition starting in childhood and progressing until late teens or early adult years. It affects distance clarity and is traditionally this is managed by prescribing distance lenses in glasses or contacts as the condition progresses. Evidence is now emerging that two contact lens based options are showing promise in potentially slowing the progressive of myopia.
One is orthokeratology or ortho-k, an overnight lenses used for decades as an alternative to laser surgery for adults (nospecs.com.au), and now being used to help children and teens see more clearly with the added advantage of potentially slowing progression. The other is a type of soft bifocal lens that has been released to Asian markets and is currently undergoing trials in Australia
What are the risks of contact lens wear?
The main concern with contact lens at any age is eye infection, particularly those that can lead to loss of sight. A serious MK or microbial keratitis fortunately is quite rare with estimates of 7.7 events per 10 000 years of wear in overnight lenses2, which are considered to have the most risk of infection. The rates are lower again with single use day-wear lenses.
A recent study of 8 to 11 year olds3 wearing contact lenses, showed they were able to handle care and maintenance of contacts just as well as older wearers. Younger children are carefully monitored by their parents who need to be involved if contacts are being worn.
One of the main ways to minimize infection is hygiene, and this is the greatest consideration for contact lens suitability in any person regardless of age. This a combination of hand cleaning, lens care and how to deal environments where infection risk may be increased. For example, swimming in contacts is thought to increase the risk of infection, and so extra precautions are required in this situation.
With this is in mind, parent, child and their optometrist must decide the individual suitability of each child to contact lens wear against the benefits that contact lenses bring.
Which Contact Lens is Most Suitable?
When considering readiness of a child or teenager for contact lenses, your optometrist will also consider their needs against the various lens types available. Your optometrist will need to consider:
- Your child’s prescription
- Their individual eye shape
- The proposed wearing time eg everyday vs only some days
- Their sporting and leisure activities
- Their age
- Whether the contact lenses are intended to just correct sight or have some other therapeutic benefit like controlling myopia progression.
In the end, there aren’t many prescriptions or eye-shapes that can’t be fit with contact lenses, so don’t believe that high astigmatism or irregular shaped eyes are a barrier to contact lens wear. Nor is age necessarily a barrier to enjoying the benefits of contact lenses.
Understanding the two ingredients that make infections possible, helps us understand ways to minimize infection risk:
- The bugs must be present to create the infection
- The bugs must have a way to get past the eye’s natural defences
Keep the Bugs Away
Avoid environments where bugs can get in. The main one that comes to mind is swimming. Swimming looks like the perfect opportunity to use contact lenses, but with water being one of the sources of some particularly nasty bugs, some safety rules need to be followed. If in doubt, don’t wear contact lenses while swimming, but your optometrist will be able to discuss what other ways there are to manage contact lenses and swimming.
Not sharing or swapping contacts with someone else
Never using saliva, tap water, distilled water, or homemade non-sterile saline solution in caring for the lenses
A major reminder of this was the advent of novelty lenses and unfortunate cases of serious infection due to inappropriate fitting, cleaning (or lack of) and sharing of these lenses.
2. Bullimore MA, Sinnott LT, Jones-Jordan LA. The risk of microbial keratitis with overnight corneal reshaping lenses. Optom Vis Sci. 2013 Sep;90(9):937-44.