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99% of contact lens wearers put themselves at risk of eye infections, CDC study finds

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Wash hands with soap and water and dry them well before touching contact lenses.

Almost all of the estimated 41 million Americans who wear contact lenses engage in some kind of lens-related behavior that increases the risk of an eye infection, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Those safety lapses help explain why a third of the contact-lens wearers surveyed by the CDC for the report said they had sought medical care at some time in the past for red or painful eyes.

Each year, nearly 1 million Americans receive treatment for keratitis (inflammation of the cornea) or other type of contact-lens complication, at a cost of $175 million.

Keratitis infections, which can be caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses or a single-cell organism called acanthamoeba, are particularly worrisome. If left untreated, these infections can become so severe that they lead to a loss of vision.

Risky behaviors

The CDC survey involved about 1,000 contact lens wearers from across the country. Most were women (82 percent) and aged 40 or older (62 percent). About 93 percent of the respondents said they wore soft contact lens, which are made from a flexible plastic that permits oxygen to flow through to the cornea.

Of the people surveyed, 99 percent acknowledged at least one risky lens-related behavior.

The most common breach of hygiene: sleeping in the lenses. More than 87 percent of the survey’s respondents said they sometimes napped without removing their lenses, and half said they have slept overnight with the lenses still in. Although certain soft (and rigid) contact lenses have been approved for overnight wear, sleeping in any type of lens can increase the risk of eye infections, according to the CDC.

Exposing the lenses to water was another common hygiene lapse identified in the survey. Almost 85 percent of the respondents said they showered with their contact lenses in, and 61 percent said they swam with them in. In addition, 35 percent said they sometimes rinsed their lenses in tap water rather than in a disinfecting solution, and almost 17 percent said they sometimes stored their lenses in tap water.

“Exposure of lenses to water raises the risk for infection because micoorganisms living in water can be transferred to the eye,” write the authors of the CDC report. “Even household tap water, although treated to be safe for drinking, is not sterile and contains microorganisms that can contaminate lens cases and contact lenses and cause eye infections.”

Other risky behaviors uncovered in the survey included “topping off” disinfecting solution instead of emptying and cleaning the lens case and using new solution (55 percent) and not replacing the lens or lens cases as frequently as recommended (50 percent and 82 percent, respectively).

Don’t cut corners

“Good vision contributes to overall well-being and independence for people of all ages, so it’s important not to cut corners on healthy contact lens wear and care,” said Dr. Jennifer Cope, a CDC medical epidemiologist, in a statement released with the report. “We are finding that many wearers are unclear about how to properly wear and care for contact lenses.”

Cope and her CDC colleagues recommend that contact lens wearers do the following to prevent eye infections:

  • Wash hands with soap and water and dry them well before touching contact lenses.
  • Take contacts out before sleeping, showering or swimming.
  • Rub and rinse contacts in disinfecting solution each they remove them.
  • Rub and rinse the case with a contact lens solution, dry with a clean tissue and store it upside down with the caps off after each use.
  • Replace contact lens cases at least once every three months.
  • Avoid “topping off” solution in lens case (adding fresh solution to old solution).
  • Carry a backup pair of glasses in case contact lenses have to be taken out.

The CDC report was published in the August 21 issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), where it can be in full.  

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