October 27, 2003

OTC contact lenses becoming a scary thing

By Joy Bell

As the Halloween weekend comes closer, teens and young adults may be in danger of losing their sight or contracting eye infections through the use of popular over-the-counter contact lenses, according to the Emory Eye Center (EEC).

These lenses—sold at hairdressers, flea markets and even gas stations—are decorative and especially popular around Halloween. Some give wearers the appearance of cat eyes, for example, or have holiday-specific themes. But whatever their design, lenses purchased from these sources are dangerous.

A report in the October Eye & Contact Lens, the clinical journal of the Contact Lens Associa-tion of Ophthalmologists, cites horror stories experienced by patients who wore these lenses. One patient is now legally blind; another needed a corneal transplant and will be monitored the rest of his life. Last year the American Academy of Ophthalmology reported several cases of infections and permanent corneal scarring due to lenses sold by a beachwear vendor in South Carolina, and the stories continue to appear.

"Teens and others need to know that these lenses can pose a grave danger to their eyesight," said Diane Song, an EEC corneal specialist. "The lenses they buy over-the-counter are not prescribed by a medical professional, and as such, do not typically ‘fit’ the wearer. Moreover, dangers of infection are significant, especially when these teens swap lenses with each other."

"Proper handling and cleaning of lenses is crucial to good eye health," said Michael Ward, director of EEC’s contact lens section. "These are medical devices, and these stories underscore the importance of seeing an eye care professional for proper fitting and lens care instruction.

"Many people think that if you are wearing the lenses purely for decorative purpose, you do not need a prescription," Ward continued. "That’s a common misconception."

The six cases mentioned in Eye & Contact Lens involved individuals buying the lenses from unlicensed vendors such as those mentioned above. Purchasers did not receive any instructions on how to properly care for or wear the lenses, and all were sold individual contact lenses without a prescription, examination or fitting by an eye care professional.

Of the six cases, one developed a severe bacterial infection from trying to take a lens out and needs a corneal transplant; one developed light sensitivity and pain from continual wearing of over-the-counter lenses without cleaning them; and a 24-year-old woman became legally blind from corneal scarring in one eye after she developed conjunctivitis (pink eye) and was treated for both herpes simplex and bacterial keratitis. She reported wearing disposable contact lenses for approximately six months, often sleeping in them.

The report says the demand for decorative contact lenses continues to increase, particularly among teenage girls and young women, with consumers spending approximately $180 million on them so far. Colored contact lenses are one of the fastest growing segments in the contact lens market. Because of the growing market, the report states: "American young people remain at risk as a major target of the unauthorized sale of decorative contact lenses."

Decorative (colored) lenses in and of themselves are not the issue; they are prescribed by eye care professionals every day. Many who wear contact lenses prefer the colored version for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are easy to see when out of the eye.

"We want to remind parents and teens to be mindful of eye safety during this holiday season," Song said. "Having trendy decorative contact lenses is not worth losing your sight."