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CDC: Contact lens wearers are putting their eyes at risk

If you're one of the nearly 41 million Americans who wear contact lenses, the process of rinsing them off and popping them in may seem as routine as brushing your teeth.

But it's easy to get careless with your contact lens hygiene, and health officials are warning that unsafe habits could be putting your eyes at risk.

A new report out Thursday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that virtually all contact lens wearers admit to at least one safety lapse that could increase their risk of an eye infection. Nearly one-third sought medical care for a red or painful eye condition that might have been preventable through more sanitary handling of contact lenses, the CDC said.

The report is based on a nationwide survey of about 1,000 contact lens wearers age 18 or over. About 93 percent reported wearing some variety of soft contacts, made of flexible plastics that allow oxygen to pass through to the cornea.

Ninety-nine percent of contact lens wearers surveyed admitted cutting corners in their contact lens hygiene at least once, in a way that could increase the risk for eye infection or inflammation.

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The most common offense: napping in contact lenses. More than 87 percent admitted they'd fallen asleep in their contacts at some point.

Just over half said they'd slept overnight with their lenses in. While certain contact lenses are FDA approved for overnight wear, the CDC says sleeping in any type of lens can increase the risk of eye infections.

Almost 85 percent ever showered with their lenses in, and 61 percent went swimming with them, even though health officials say lenses should not come in contact with water.

Lens cleaning habits also left something to be desired, with 55 percent of users sometimes "topping off" their lens case with more disinfecting solution, rather than emptying and cleaning the case before filling with fresh solution, as recommended.

And more than a third of those surveyed had rinsed their lenses in tap water instead of sterile disinfecting solution, a potentially risky move. "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," the report says.

"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," the lead author of the study, CDC medical epidemiologist Jennifer Cope, M.D., M.P.H., said in a statement. "We are finding that many wearers are unclear about how to properly wear and care for contact lenses."

To help reduce the risk of eye irritation or infections, the CDC offers the following tips:

  • Never sleep in contact lenses unless advised to do so by an eye care provider.
  • Keep all water away from contact lenses. Avoid showering while wearing contact lenses, remove them before using a hot tub or swimming, and never rinse or store contact lenses in water.
  • Replace contact lenses as often as recommended by an eye care provider.
  • Discard used solution from the contact lens case and clean it with fresh solution, never water, every day.
  • Store contact lens case upside down with the caps off after each use.
  • Replace the contact lens case at least once every 3 months.
  • Visit an eye care provider as often as recommended by your primary health care provider.
  • Remove contact lenses immediately and call an eye care provider if you are experiencing eye pain, discomfort, redness, or blurred vision.
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