Should your teen wear contact lenses?

Today's contact lenses are easier for kids to wear and take care of. Here's what you should know.

Vanessa has worn glasses since she was eight years old. She’s never been happy about it, though, and by age 10 was asking for contact lenses.

Vanessa is 13 now and she got contacts last year. Concerns about her appearance did enter into the decision (“She knew that in the fall she would be getting braces on her teeth, and she was worried about being teased for having both glasses and braces,” says her mom, Lisa Singbeil.) But that was not the most important argument in favour. “Our main reason for agreeing is that she’s very active in sports,” explains Singbeil. “She is a softball pitcher and plays volleyball. The concern about her glasses breaking or falling off has always been there.”

Singbeil can relate to Vanessa’s situation because she wore glasses from a young age as well. “I was actually hit in the face with a softball when I was 12 and my glasses shattered.”

Last spring’s softball season was the final straw. “She couldn’t wear sunglasses because of her glasses and with the sun in her eyes she felt she wasn’t pitching as well as she normally did — which was true.”

Singbeil says it has worked out well. “She’s very good about taking care of the daily cleaning and changing them every two weeks.”

Kids like Vanessa have become quite common, says Dorrie Morrow, chair of the Canadian Association of Optometrists’ Children’s Vision Initiative.

Will contacts work for your child?

“Whether contact lenses would be appropriate is really not age-dependent. I have many successful 10-year-olds in contacts and I have unsuccessful 40-year-olds. But the child does have to be mature enough and disciplined enough that they are going to be able to learn to put the contacts in and take them out on their own, and to understand the responsibilities (cleaning and daily care) that will be asked of them.”

Parents’ responsibilities

There are responsibilities for the parent, too: “It won’t be just one visit and come back if you have a problem. It takes time to get the proper fit and the right lens.” Regular follow-up is also essential, says Morrow, to be sure the cornea stays healthy and undamaged. “A contact lens is not just a cosmetic device,” she reminds us. “It is a medical device sitting on living tissue.”

Morrow also points out that your child will still need to have glasses for backup, so contacts are an additional cost. “They aren’t going to be able to wear lenses all the time — that’s not safe,” she says.

That said, she reassures parents that today’s contact lenses are very safe. For children, she prefers single-use disposable contacts. “Every time the child puts in a lens, it’s a new, sterile lens. So you take away some of those worrisome issues for parents: ‘Honey, did you clean it?’ ‘Did you clean the contact lens case?’ ‘Do you have enough solution?’ And the child is not exposed to any contact lens solution chemicals.”

Morrow adds that there is no one contact lens option that is best for every child. “The most important thing is for the doctor to come up with what is the most appropriate lens for that child.”

Contact lens choices

Like eyeglasses, the cost of contact lenses varies widely depending on the prescription (e.g., contacts to correct astigmatism cost more), type of lenses, diagnostic and follow-up care, etc.

However, it’s fair to say that contact lenses are generally a little more expensive than a comparable prescription in glasses (and remember you’ll need the glasses for backup, too), and that the more convenient types are a little more expensive than the more conventional types. Here’s a quick list of the more popular kinds:

Disposable contacts The easiest, and arguably healthiest, type of contact is the daily disposable, which is discarded at the end of each day. The extra cost is partly offset by savings on cleaning and soaking solution. Daily wear disposables are taken out, cleaned and stored every night and then re-worn the next day until their “shelf life” is up. There are one week, two week, and monthly lenses available.

Soft durable lenses These are soft lenses that will typically last about a year. They need to be cleaned and disinfected daily and require periodic treatment to remove protein buildup.

Rigid gas permeable lenses This is a newer incarnation of the old “hard contacts.” They are have a longer adjustment period and have been known to flip out if jarred (after a tumble on the soccer field, for example), so they may not be the first choice for most kids. However, they do provide better correction for certain vision problems, and a new product with a “soft skirt” around the edge offers a more comfortable adjustment.

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