Prevent eye infections from contact lenses with these tips

Contact lens wearers must be vigilant in taking proper care of their lenses in order to prevent infections, the CDC warns in a new report.

About 41 million Americans wear contact lenses. While they are a safe and effective alternative to glasses, contact lenses can lead to serious problems if not handled properly.

In fact, the CDC reports that nearly one in five lens-related eye infections reported to a federal database involved a patient who experienced eye damage.

“Contact lenses are a safe and effective form of vision correction when worn and cared for as recommended,” said Michael Beach, Ph.D., director of CDC’s Healthy Water Program, in a statement. “However, improper wear and care of contact lenses can cause eye infections that sometimes lead to serious, long-term damage.”

For the report, researchers reviewed more than 1,000 contact lens-related infections reported to the FDA between 2005 and 2015.

The infections included patients who had a scarred cornea, needed a corneal transplant, or otherwise suffered a reduction in vision. 

More than 10 percent of the incidents involved a visit to an emergency department or urgent care clinic. The researchers point out that even minor damage can be painful and disrupt daily life. For example, many of the reports describe the patients needing to make daily visits to an eye doctor or hourly administration of eye drops to treat the infection.

Furthermore, the report found that more than one in four of the reports mentioned easily avoidable behaviors that increase the risk of infection, such as wearing lenses while sleeping and wearing them longer than recommended.

Experts urge that proper contact lens care is paramount to maintaining good eye health.

“While patients, especially younger patients, are really excited about being fitted with contact lenses, I stress to them that contact lenses are medical devices that have to be properly fitted, evaluated and that they must adhere to proper contact lens care,” said Dr. Andrea Thau of the American Optometric Association (AOA). “If they don’t follow my guidance, they can end up with serious eye problems.” Thau was not involved in the CDC study.

The AOA recommends the following tips to safely wear and care for contact lenses.

  • Visit your eye doctor every year.  Annual in-person eye examines determine whether or not your prescription changed and evaluate eye and overall health. An optometrist can diagnose eye diseases (such as glaucoma), systemic diseases (like diabetes), neurological issues (such as strokes, brain tumors, aneurysms, Multiple Sclerosis, etc.), peripheral vision issues and colorblindness.
  • Buy your contact lenses from a trusted source. Contact lenses and lens care products are medical devices regulated by the FDA, yet some online retailers sell them without prescriptions and sometimes ship contact lenses of the wrong prescription. Poorly fitted contact lenses can cause significant damage to the eye’s function, which could lead to irreversible sight loss.

  • Don’t panic if your lens is “lost” in your eye.  Sometimes rubbing your eyes can cause a contact to move around, but it is not possible for it to get lost behind your eye due to a membrane — the conjunctiva — that covers the eye and the inside of the eyelids. If the lens has moved and is not visible, stay calm and instill a few drops of saline solution to moisten the eye, look away from where you feel the lens and lift your eyelid. When you see the lens, use the tip of your finger to remove the lens. If this happens repeatedly, make an appointment with your eye doctor to check the fit of your lenses.

  • Don’t ever share contacts.  Sharing contacts means sharing germs and bacteria, which increases the risk of infection and complications. Additionally, friend’s contacts may not be the right size or fit for your eyes leading to serious problems.
  • Never use tap water to clean and rinse lenses.  Contact solutions remove mucus, secretions, films or deposits that can build up during use and lead to bacterial growth if not removed properly. Use the disinfecting solution that your doctor prescribed each night to keep contacts clean and safe. When you find yourself at a last-minute overnight stay and don’t have your solution, don’t rely on tap water as it contains bacteria and other microorganisms that have been proven to cause serious eye infections.
  • Keep your lens case clean.  After you insert your reusable, disinfected contact lenses, rinse your case with solution, and store it upside down and open to dry fully. Every three months, toss your old case and replace it with a fresh, new one.
  • No matter how tired you are, do not sleep in your contacts.  While some lenses are approved for continuous overnight use, sleeping in lenses does increase the risk of an eye infection. If you regularly fall asleep with your lenses in, talk to your optometrist during your next appointment about extended wear contact lenses.
  • Don’t over wear your lenses.  Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed for a 2015 AOA report admitted to wearing disposable contact lenses longer than the suggested duration. This bad habit can cause permanent eye damage from bacterial infections and oxygen deprivation.