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The Question: My 13-year-old daughter is starting to become self-conscious about her glasses and she's asking us for contact lenses. We think she's too young, and she isn't the greatest at washing her hands and face regularly yet. We don't want her to end up with an eye infection. What do you think, are we being paranoid?

The Answer: I don't think you are being paranoid at all. In fact, I think you are being very realistic. It takes a certain level of maturity and responsibility in order to use contact lenses safely. Many young adults will start wearing contact lenses around this age, but not all are ready for the level of responsibility involved. At stake is the long-term health of your daughter's eyes.

Remarkably, contact lenses can be used in babies. Children born with congenital eye disorders may wear contact lenses as part of their medical treatment. Pre-teens and teens like your daughter often want to start wearing contact lenses as they become more self-conscious about their appearance. Other young adults prefer to wear contact lenses while playing sports. Wearing contacts avoids the inconvenience of replacing or repairing eyeglass frames that get damaged with sports or rough play. Contact lens-wearing athletes also benefit from improved peripheral vision compared to those who wear glasses.

Regardless of the age of the lens wearer, meticulous hygiene is critical to prevent eye infections. The importance of regular, thorough hand washing especially before handling and inserting lenses cannot be understated. Safe use of contact lenses also involves being able to reliably put them in and take them out as well as clean and store them safely.

In my mind, the age at which a child can start to wear contact lenses safely is determined by both the maturity level of the child and the level of involvement of the parents. For example, it is may be possible for a mature eight-year-old to wear contact lenses if her parents are routinely available to supervise and assist with the care. On the other hand, forgetful teenagers who must independently manage their own daily care may not be good candidates for contacts. Remember that harmful bacteria are particularly plentiful in bathrooms so regularly disinfecting bathroom surfaces will help reduce exposure to dangerous bacteria. Removing contact lenses at bedtime will also decrease the risk of infection. Consult your optometrist for specific advice on storage, cleaning, and which type of contact lens is best suited for your child.

This sounds like an opportunity to challenge your daughter to prove to you that she is up to the task. Perhaps after demonstrating that she can reliably wash her hands and face daily for a month, her reward can be a trip to your local eye care professional.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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