Before I got contact lenses for the first time, after more than twelve years of wearing glasses, I heard numerous horror stories. A relative got pinkeye in both of her eyes; two friends had to fish errant lenses from behind their eyeballs; another had a bright-red eye after a cracked lens scratched her cornea. Needless to say, I was freaked out. As if the idea of sticking a foreign object directly onto my eyeball weren’t cringe-worthy enough! But in the end, I’m glad these people shared their experiences with me. Contact lenses may correct vision problems, but they can cause many more-serious problems—including complete loss of vision—if handled improperly.
Parasites, Pinkeye, Blindness – Oh, My!
When I first started using contact lenses, I wouldn’t even go near them unless my hands were freshly washed. Over time, though, I got lazy about the clean-hands rule, especially after a late night out. But after reading about the consequences of not following hygiene protocol for contacts, I won’t make that mistake anymore. Even if you do take good care of your lenses, simply wearing them can make your eyes dry and cause corneal scratches. But if you don’t take care of them, the consequences are much worse.
Any condition with the word “ulcer” in it automatically sounds bad—and in this case, it definitely is. A corneal ulcer is an open sore on the cornea, the transparent front part of the eye. It’s caused primarily by infections, but tiny cuts on the cornea can trigger an ulcer, too. Possible symptoms include an increase of discharge or tears, light sensitivity, blurry or fuzzy vision, swelling, burning, excessive pain, a small white patch on the cornea, and redness. In a 2003 editorial in Eye and Contact Lens, Dr. H. Dwight Cavanagh wrote that corneal ulcers happen to one in 2,500 people who use daily wear lenses. That number lowers to one in five hundred if people sleep with their lenses on. If left untreated, corneal ulcers will infect the entire eye, which could lead to partial or complete blindness, cataracts, or glaucoma.
Acanthamoeba are miniscule parasites that live in water, which is why this infection’s usually the result of people’s making their own cleaning solution for contact lenses. It stems from any exposure of a lens to bacteria-laden water. The parasites are found in tap water, swimming pools, hot tubs, rivers, and so forth. Sufferers of acanthamoeba keratitis might feel as if something’s constantly in their eyes or experience redness and pain, light sensitivity, and impacted vision. It eventually causes permanent loss of vision and requires a corneal transplant. To avoid this rare but extremely serious disease, take contacts out before swimming or taking a shower, and don’t use homemade cleaning solutions.
It’s similar to acanthamoeba keratitis, but this corneal infection is caused by a fungus, rather than by parasites. Fungal keratitis is a rare condition, but the FDA released a report in 2006 warning consumers that reported incidents were on the rise, especially among people who wear soft contact lenses. (More people use soft lenses than hard, because they’re initially more comfortable and are disposable—they’re meant to last anywhere from a day to a month, depending on the type; hard lenses are more durable and require more upkeep.) Like acanthamoeba keratitis, fungal keratitis can lead to blindness and the need for surgery.
Otherwise known as pinkeye, this condition results in inflamed, swollen, painful, itchy eyes. The eye can even crust over from its excess discharge if it’s not treated in a timely matter. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other contaminants enter and infect the conjunctiva, the eyelid’s protective lining. As with any infection, pinkeye will get much worse if it’s left untreated. Potential repercussions include vision loss, not to mention the possibility of spreading it to others.
Having corneal edema means that the cornea is swollen because of damage to the area. This is most often caused by wearing contacts for too long at a time. If you see halos around light fixtures like street lamps or stoplights, have impaired vision, have reddened eyes, and have blisters forming on the surface of your eyes, these are all indications of corneal edema.
The Opthalmologist Knows Best
Wearing contact lenses can cause a host of issues, such as corneal damage due to insufficient oxygen penetrating the lens, small scratches from putting contacts in wrong, and an allergic reaction to lens-cleaning solution, in some cases. But not dealing with your lenses properly opens you up to a variety of infections and conditions that can cause permanent damage. That’s why it’s essential to consult a licensed ophthalmologist before you begin wearing contact lenses regularly. A few years ago, cosmetic contacts that could change people’s eye color were all the rage, and you can still buy them without a prescription, despite FDA warnings and a particularly terrifying study published in a 2003 edition of Eye and Contact Lens. Researchers detailed the cases of six people who wore cosmetic lenses, with terrible consequences. One needed a corneal transplant at the ripe age of fourteen after battling a bad infection. Another individual, only twenty-four, completely lost vision in one eye.
The eyes are incredibly sensitive and vulnerable, which is why ophthalmologists are necessary to pick out lenses that fit your eyes’ particular shape the best. They’ll also tell new users how to clean them properly, as well as the horrors of what happens when you don’t (which I’ve handily listed above). Every user, new or seasoned, should practice vigilant hand washing, regular case cleanings, and adherence to lens time limits. Contact lenses are meant to be less of a hassle than wearing glasses, but if you don’t treat them right, what results could be much more inconvenient. Unless you’d choose surgery over spectacles, don’t take the rules of contact lenses for granted.
Updated February 24, 2011