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Improper use of contact lenses — including sleeping in them — can lead to serious eye infections, warns CDC

“This report underscores what ophthalmologists, especially cornea specialists, have known for quite awhile,” said Dr. Scott Uttley, a cornea specialist with the St. Paul Eye Clinic.

About 25 percent of the reported eye infections were linked to unsafe — and easily avoidable — contact lens practices

The failure of people to wear or care for their contact lenses properly is causing Americans to develop serious eye injuries, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CDC researchers analyzed all 1,074 contact-lens-related eye infections reported to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Medical Device Report during the decade 2005-2015. They found that nearly 20 percent of the reports involved damage to the cornea, the clear tissue that serves as a “front window” of the eye. Some of these patients had a scarred cornea, while others needed a corneal transplant. Many experienced a permanent reduction in their vision.

The data also revealed that about 25 percent of the reported infections were linked to unsafe — and easily avoidable — contact lens practices, such as sleeping in the lenses or wearing them longer than recommended.

Few of the reported infections were associated with problems with the contact lens itself, such as the lens being ripped or torn.

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Given that more than 41 million Americans wear contact lenses, the low numbers of serious infections reported in this study can be viewed as reassuring. But, as the CDC researchers point out, not all contact-lens-related eye infections are reflected in these statistics — just the ones doctors felt were serious enough to report to the FDA.

In a national survey conducted by the CDC last year, one third of contact lens wearers said they had gone at least once to the doctor for red or painful eyes related to wearing contact lenses. 

And more than 99 of them reported engaging in at least one behavior that could put them at risk of an eye infection.

A medical device

“This report underscores what ophthalmologists, especially cornea specialists, have known for quite awhile,” said Dr. Scott Uttley, a cornea specialist with the St. Paul Eye Clinic and the past president of the Minnesota Academy of Ophthalmology, in an interview with MinnPost. “While contacts are safe and effective in most people, we certainly see complications — and that’s usually when patients aren’t wearing contacts as they should be.”

Dr. Scott Uttley
Dr. Scott Uttley

The most frequent mistake people make is wearing their contact lenses for longer stretches of time than recommended, especially while sleeping, he said. Another common error: Failing to keep the lenses sterile by rinsing the devices in a disinfecting solution each time they’re removed.

“I’ve seen everything,” said Uttley. “I’ve seen people put them in their mouth and then put them in their eye. I’ve seen them use tap water. Or they will use any water around — even lake water.”

People should also avoid swimming while wearing their contact lenses, and lakes can be particularly problematic, he added.

“When you’re swimming in lakes or any other brackish water, that puts you at risk for a very bad parasitic infection [Acanthamoeba keratitis] that can affect the eyes,” he explained. “It causes a really, really bad infection in the cornea that takes several months to get over and can lead to blindness.”

Taking an extra step

Why do so many people ignore advice about wearing and caring for their contact lenses?

“Healthy behaviors sometimes require taking an extra step, and that can be hard for individuals with busy lifestyles,” said Uttley. “It’s just easier to leave the contacts in.”

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In addition, contact lenses have become so commonplace that people often forget they’re putting a medical device into their eyes.

“Complications are rare, but we see them,” stressed Uttley. “I had to do a cornea transplant on an 18-year-old girl because she got an infection from a contact lens that she was sleeping in. She was unlucky. The bacteria happened to affect her central cornea.”

“These stories exist,” he added, “and you want to do everything you can to minimize your risk of having a problem.”

Prevention steps

To prevent eye infections, the CDC recommends that contact lens wearers do the following:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water and dry them well before touching contact lenses.
  • Take your contacts out before sleeping, showering or swimming.
  • Rub and rinse your contacts in disinfection solution each time you 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 lenses case (adding fresh solution to old solution).
  • Carry a backup pair of glasses in case your contact lenses have to be taken out.

For more information: The CDC report was published in the August 20 issue of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, where it can be read in full.