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Eye Of The Tropical Storm: Why Holidays Are Damaging To Our Optical Health, and What We Can Do About It

A horrifying news story circulated in 2014 that still keeps me awake to this day. It involved a Taiwanese undergraduate student holidaying to celebrate the completion of the academic year – a celebration abruptly ended after her vision was eaten away by parasites.

It sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel. Except the student had been swimming, showering; and using hot tubs for six months without removing – never mind cleaning – her contact lenses. This gross negligence of her optical hygiene created the perfect breeding ground for a parasite that finds its home and feeding ground by burrowing into human corneas.

Now, I know virtually nobody is that unhygienic, but it was a stark warning for me. We tend to treat holidays as a sojourn from ordinary life, where routine and habit goes out the window and (we like to think) nothing can go wrong. If we all drank, ate, and sunbathed as much as we did on holiday, I dread to think how fast the life expectancy numbers would plummet.

Overindulgence is bad, and everybody knows it. But the scary thing when it comes to optical hygiene is that most of us are ignorant of how going abroad can severely damage our eyesight. It’s all well and good having a hangover on the flight home, or putting on a few pounds (you can shed them later), but eye health is something – and I’m sure you will agree – that we don’t want to put into question. Even if it’s “only” a week in the sun.

Here are two major ways that naïve Brits damage their eyes abroad – and what you can do to stop it:

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1. Brits keep poor contact lenses hygiene on holiday. Remember to clean then often – perhaps more than at home

Most holidaymakers keep their contact lenses in for longer than the recommended 10 – 12 hours. This is easy to do, as every holiday presents a break from routine; and especially on long-haul flights, which can sometimes surmount to about 24-hours from departure at home to landing on the other side of the world.

But we can just as easily forget to change them on a lengthy day-trip adventure, or if there is no immediately obvious place or situation to take them out.

If you are one to forget about your contact lenses on holiday – no problem! – after reading about a certain eye-eating parasite I’ve never forgotten, and I’m sure you won’t now, too.

But jokes aside, contact lenses do – unfortunately – place us in a high-risk group for eye diseases. Wear your contact lenses for too long, and you run the risk of starving the surface of the eye of oxygen. This can create tiny wounds that double-up as incubators for nasty bacteria. Eye-eating parasites are very rare, but bacterial infections can come from anywhere: the swimming pool, soil, the air, you name it.

Don’t leave your contact lenses in. Resist the temptation. Instead, remember to take them out with thoroughly washed and dried hands. Then relieve your oxygen-starved eyes with some hydrating eye drops.

Swimming is a no-no for contact lenses. The sand and the salt of the sea is obvious, but fresh-water lakes are often home to unwelcoming microbes; and public pools are teeming despite all the chlorination efforts to kill them. Just take them out before swimming.

Sun cream is another obstacle for contact lenses-users. Get it in your eyes and it can sting really bad and cause irritation to the eye and damage to the lenses. I usually put sun cream on in the morning, before I put the contact lenses in. But for reapplications – either be really conscious applying it around the eyes, or just take them out.

And remember to give your eyes a rest. Swap the lenses for glasses, even if for only a day. Let the eyeballs ‘breathe’. This last point is probably the most convenient thing to do, especially if you are on a long day trip on the other side of the country. (I did this on the day-long boat trip tours of El Nido in the Philippines and never looked back.)

There’s also one final important point I’d like to make on the subject of contact lenses. Don’t go gung-ho into your holiday with disposable, daily contact lenses. They aren’t biodegradable, and the more common ones are made from silicon hydrogel. I wouldn’t want a million holidaymakers running through seven a week – it would be a nightmare for the environment.

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2. We choose the ‘wrong’ sunglasses, and they don’t give us the protection we think they should. Look for the CE mark when purchasing them.

This point really raised my eyebrows, because it’s something I’ve never even considered before. Normally when I buy sunglasses, I consider three things:

  • If the sunglasses look good
  • If I can see without squinting
  • How good I look with them on

And that’s it. I’ve purchased sunglasses off of a beach stall for a few pounds to last for the whole week. Whatever amount of UV protection they have has never been an issue. I’m not alone here, either: as an estimated 51% of shoppers don’t think beyond anything other than the latest sunglasses styles and trends.

But it is really important to invest in a pair of sunglasses that offer at least UV 400 protection. Anything less and your eyes will be dazzled and put under enormous strain in the fantastic early-to-midday sun. A factor of UV 400 is what you want, because it absorbs harmful UVA, UVB and UVC rays.

This doesn’t mean breaking the bank on a pair of Ray-bans, either. In fact, you can buy affordable UV 400 sunglasses in most supermarkets on holiday. A trick to remember is: If you cannot find a UV indicator, then they are probably cheap knock-offs that will do nothing to protect the eyes. Be especially wary ofglasses with tinted lenses – don’t assume these are sunglasses. Some of them offer no UV protection at all, and can actually be worse for your eyes than not wearing sunglasses. (This is because tinted lenses can trick the pupils into dilating. The eyes dilate when they think it is dark and try to let more light in, hence why tinted lenses are worse than no cover at all.)

My advice is to always keep a look out for the CE mark, which is usually a sticker – most often to the left on glasses lenses – which should clearly display a UV protection number. (If you didn’t know that don’t be embarrassed. Four out of five people, when surveyed, didn’t know where to look when asked about the CE mark.)

Remember, many of us neglect our eyes needlessly because we are ignorant of the damage we are doing to them.

I truly think that if more people knew they were putting their eyesight at risk, they’d stop immediately. That’s why it is important to spread the message, to raise awareness of the hidden dangers that the bright south-of-the-English-channel sun can have on our eyes. There’s just no need to take the risk. Especially when proper eye hygiene is very easy to maintain.

If you are concerned, or if you want to know more about the condition of your eyes and protect them, Optical Express are currently offering free eye tests and prescription sunglasses.

Have a great time on holiday, abroad; backpacking – whatever it is you’re doing. But please, don’t let your claim to fame be a news story about poor eye hygiene. I don’t think I can take another one.


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