Q. I am in my mid-fifties and in good health. In recent years I've noticed that whenever I drink alcoholic beverages (beer and wine), even in moderate amounts, I sleep fitfully. Whenever I go "on the wagon" I sleep soundly. Is this a problem peculiar to me or my age, or does alcohol affect sleep?

A. Contrary to popular notions about "nightcaps," alcohol can make you sleep poorly. The more you have to drink, the more your sleep may be disturbed. It's also likely that the older you are, the more likely alcohol will adversely affect your sleep.

Although alcohol is generally a sedating drug, it disturbs the normal stages of sleep. Many people experience this disruption in their normal sleep patterns as fitful sleep, unrefreshing sleep, early morning awakening or waking in the middle of the night and having difficulty getting back to sleep.

Drinking in binges and steady drinking are very common causes of poor sleep and problems with insomnia. Although many people find that alcohol puts them to sleep, using alcohol as a sleep aid will usually backfire and may even lead to a vicious cycle of increasing difficulty sleeping coupled with increasing use of alcohol as a nightcap.

If alcohol is significantly disturbing your sleep, you may have to cut down on your drinking or avoid drinking close to bedtime. Bear in mind that sleeping problems related to alcohol use may be a sign of hidden, unrecognized problems with alcohol. If you feel this might apply to you, I recommend discussing the situation with your doctor.

Q. After seeing your discussion on contact lenses, I wanted to ask about my problem. For three years I wore soft contact lenses without any difficulty. Then I developed red, puffy eyes. My eye doctor said I was allergic to the cleaning solution and that I should wear glasses. I did, but my eyes are still red. My doctor advised using warm water soaks twice a day. Isn't there some kind of eye medication that could help?

A. Contact lens wearers can develop red, puffy eyes for several reasons. About four out of five problems with contact lenses are due to deposits on the surface of the lens. Deposits are more than just dust -- they're made up of mucus, protein and other substances secreted by the eye. Deposits are more likely to form if you have a problem with tear secretion ("dry eye syndrome") or -- more commonly -- if you don't take proper care of your lenses. Fifty percent of complaints about soft lenses are traceable, at least in part, to incorrect lens care.

Both types of soft contacts may cause an eye condition known as giant papillary conjunctivitis. This problem, occurring in about 15 percent of wearers, results from eye irritation and an allergic reaction to deposits on the lens. Symptoms include red eyes, blurred vision and a mucous discharge. Treatment includes meticulous lens care, replacing your lenses every six to 12 months and using eyedrops to relieve discomfort. Eyedrops containing cromolyn, a prescription drug used in treating asthma and allergic reactions, may help.

Finally, you can develop an allergy to the chemicals in contact lens solutions, especially to thimerosal, a preservative. Ask your doctor to recommend solutions without thimerosal if this is what you're allergic to.

In the meantime, you might benefit from medicated eye drops -- containing steroids like cortisone -- to treat your eye symptoms until your condition clears. Follow-Up: Condoms

Q. Your recent discussion about sexually transmitted diseases due to artificial insemination implied to me that some of these infections could be prevented by use of a condom. We've heard a lot about "safe sex" in relation to AIDS, but what other infections are prevented by condoms?

A. No guarantees are issued with condoms, but if they're used properly, they can reduce your chances of getting or passing on a sexually transmitted disease.

Among the infections that condoms can potentially prevent are those caused by syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, hepatitis B virus, trichomonas, chlamydia and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which causes AIDS.

Proper use means putting them on before insertion and keeping them on until after withdrawal, or during any sexual contact.

Jay Siwek, a family physician from Georgetown University, practices at the Fort Lincoln Family Medicine Center and Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington. Consultation is a health education column and is not a substitute for medical advice from your physician. Send questions to Consultation, Health Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Questions cannot be answered individually.