Contact lenses and the need for contact lens exams are confusing and also misunderstood.
I know what you're thinking. What is he talking about? Contacts aren't confusing! You stick them in your eye and they make you see. What could be more simple?
Let's dive into this.
Contact lenses are a medical device
First and foremost contacts are a medical device. They're classified this way because they can cause serious harm if they aren't fit or worn properly. Contact lenses are actually not allowed to be sold without a contact lens prescription nor can they be sold by just anyone. Since they are a restricted medical device only ophthalmologists, optometrists and contact lens fitting opticians are allowed to legally sell contact lenses. That means all contact lenses in costume shops and from some online vendors are not legally sold.
But can't I just order my contacts online without a contact lens prescription or fitting?
Currently you can, it's true. This is something that is under investigation and review by numerous agencies both governmental and medical. Since there can be serious harm buying contacts without an up to date contact lens prescription it is not recommend. Optometrists, ophthalmologists and contact lens fitting opticians are all held to a higher standard and cannot sell or provide contact lenses without ensuring they are safe!
Contacts need to be fit properly to be safe
Contact lenses can be too tight, too loose, too big or too small. Any of these can increase your risk of an infection. A lens that is too loose is obvious to you as the person wearing contacts because it will be uncomfortable and the vision will change every time you blink. Other problems, like being too tight, is something only your eye care professional can tell since it will feel very comfortable... until you get an infection.
Contacts need to be fit properly to be able to see
This is especially true of astigmatism correcting (or toric) and multifocal contacts. These lenses interact with the shape of your eyes and your eyelids and if they aren't sitting in the right spot your vision will be blurred. This is easily corrected by visiting your doctor of optometry for a proper fitting.
Contacts need to be tried first to make sure they're comfortable
When you have a contact lens fitting you are given trial lenses. In part this is to allow the doctor to make sure your contacts fit you properly and that you're seeing clearly, but it's also to let you feel that lens on your eye. Each contact lens is made with different materials and coatings that are supposed to make them more comfortable. Different people react differently to these materials and what is comfortable for one person may not be comfortable for another. Trialing lenses (at no charge) gives you the chance to make sure that the lens feels comfortable in your eye. A lens that fits great and your vision is perfect isn't any good if you can't wear it because it feels like sandpaper in your eye!
So what is a contact lens prescription?
A proper contact lens prescription is different from a glasses prescription. It will specify the exact lens that the doctor has trialed with you, the base curve and diameter of the lens and the power (sometimes called the prescription) needed in the contacts. The power in your contacts is often different from your glasses either because of differences in what is available in contacts (low powers of astigmatism are not available, for example) or because your prescription is altered when we move from glasses, which sit on your nose, to contacts, which sit directly on your eye. After a proper fitting and trial your doctor of optometry can provide you with a finalized copy of your contact lens prescription. Before that process is completed you actually only have trial contact lens information but not a finalized prescription.
You need to be trained on how to wear your contacts
If you're new to contacts, a contact lens exam will also involve getting you set up with a training. We show you how to put the contact lens in and take it out and make sure you can do it confidently. You might think it's easy to get a contact lens in and out but without the proper training it can be really hard! We also make sure you know how to take care of your contacts, how to clean them and how often to replace them. This is all vital to making sure your eyes stay healthy.
Choosing the right lens can save you a lot of hassle and money too!
There are a lot of different contact lenses out there. There are monthly contacts, biweekly contacts and daily contacts. Some contacts you can sleep in and some you can't. Some let in more oxygen and some are more moist. Some lenses that sound like a bargain because they're cheap may be really old technology that could cause damage to your eyes. How do you know which one to choose? Talking with your optometrist is the best place to start. We're familiar with all the different contact lenses available and can find one that works for you based on how you want to wear them and what your budget is.
What solution to use?
One thing that isn't talked about enough is solution. Many contact lens wearers think that any old solution will work fine and that they can switch from one to solution to another without issue (just buying whatever is on sale). Your optometrist will discuss which contact lens solution is the best for the type of lenses you wear. Switching back and forth from one solution mixes up all sorts of chemicals and can make your contacts uncomfortable and really hard to wear. Using the right solution makes a big difference when it comes to comfort and cleanliness!
To sum up, it's important to have a contact lens exam to ensure good comfort and vision, proper fit to reduce the risk of infection and get advice on which lenses to use, how to use them, how to take care of them and which solution to use.