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Scientists Reveal Contact Lens Horror Stories

Newsweek logo Newsweek 12/19/2018 Kashmira Gander

Sleeping in contact lenses once in a while: how bad can it really be? It’s this lax attitude scientists are trying to combat by revealing horror stories caused by patients being careless.

In one case highlighted in the paper published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, a 57-year-old man wore his contact lenses for two weeks straight. This caused his cornea to perforate, and triggered an infection. To save his right eye, surgeons had to perform a cornea transplant on him.

Read more: Stop dumping your used contact lenses in the sink and toilet, report pleads

A separate story involved a 17-year-old girl who bought contact lenses at a drugstore without a prescription from her optician, and slept in them overnight. The resulting ulcer caused scarring on her eye.

Scientists also detailed how a 59-year-old man slept in his lenses on a two-day hunting trip. By day three, his eyes began to hurt and he tried to fix the problem with over-the-counter eye drops. But even two-hourly antibiotics from the doctor failed to help. One day, he wiped his eye with a towel and felt a pop and pain in his left eye. An ophthalmologist discovered an ulcer, and the man underwear emergency cornea transplant.

Another case saw a 34-year-old patient who had used the devices for 17 years. The man visited his doctor because his eyes were red and his vision was blurry. His ophthalmologist discovered he had been going against medical advice and sleeping in contact lenses for three to four nights per week. He also swam while wearing them, which can expose the organs to harmful bacteria. Tests revealed he had a bacterial and fungal infection called microbial keratitis. After two months, his condition didn’t improve, and he was put on a course of hourly medication for six months.

An eye with a corneal infection. © CDC (Deborah S. Jacobs, Jia Yin) An eye with a corneal infection.

Some 45million Americans are thought to wear lenses—providing plenty of opportunities for bugs to invade the eyes if the devices are worn incorrectly. And as many as one third of wearers have slept or napped while wearing the sheaths despite the risks, the authors wrote. Even doing so occasionally can spike the chance of infection six to eight times, they warned.

Dr. Jon Femling, lead author of the study assistant professor at the Department of Emergency Medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, commented in a statement: "Falling asleep, or even napping, without removing your contact lenses can significantly increase the likelihood of serious health problems."

"Sleeping in lenses is one of the riskiest and most commonly reported behaviors for adolescent and adult contact lens wearers.

"If you want to avoid infection, and avoid a trip to the emergency department, proper eye care is a must."

Dr. Justin T. Baca, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico Department of Emergency Medicine who worked on the paper, told Newsweek: “These case studies highlight the potential for serious infection and vision loss from improper use of contacts."

“Simply sleeping in your contacts under the wrong conditions can lead to devastating problems,” he added.

“These studies highlight two important risk factors for infection that contact users can avoid by never sleeping in contacts and only using prescribed contacts.”

Baca warned not to ignore eye infections. “There are many different types of infection, and an infection that is not improving should be treated by a specialist,” he stressed.

He urged those who have experienced and infection caused by a contact lens to report the product to the Food and Drug Administration Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program.

Dr. Yvonne Norgett, an optometrist who research interests including contact lens wear, told Newsweek that using the devices is generally safe, and rates of infections are extremely low. 

"Although rare, this paper illustrates that eye infections can be very painful, take many months to resolve, may require surgery and can permanently damage vision."

She warned: "For those who are dismissive of instructions given, this research could be used to illustrate the potentially serious consequences of not adhering to recommendations for the wear and care of contact lenses."

a close up of a mans face © Getty Images
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