News Releases

Oct. 20, 2003

Emory Eye Center suggests passing up those Halloween eyes: Over-the-counter cosmetic contact lenses pose unseen dangers

As the Halloween weekend comes closer, more and more teens and young adults may be in danger of losing sight or contracting infections related to the use of popular over-the-counter contact lenses. These lenses- sold at hairdressers, flea markets and even gas stations- are decorative and especially popular around the Halloween holiday. Some give wearers the appearance of cat eyes, for example, or have holiday-specific themes on them. But whatever their design, lenses purchased from these sources are dangerous-and illegal in the United States.

A recent report in the October issue of Eye & Contact Lens, the clinical journal of the Contact Lens Association 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 on several cases of infections and permanent corneal scarring due to lenses sold by a beachwear vendor in South Carolina. And the stories continue to grow.

"Teens and others need to know that these lenses can pose a grave danger to their eyesight," says Diane Song, MD, a corneal specialist at Emory Eye Center. "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," she says.

"Proper handling and cleaning of lenses is crucial to good eye health," says Michael Ward, director of Emory Eye Center'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. That's a common misconception," says Ward. "They need a proper fit, they need education on how to care for their lenses and they need to know that some behaviors, such as sleeping and swimming in the lenses are risky."

The six cases mentioned in Eye & Contact Lens reported individuals buying the lenses from unlicensed vendors, including gas stations, beauty salons, video stores, corner stores and flea markets. Purchasers did not receive any instructions on how to properly care for or wear the contact lenses. And - all of them were sold individual contact lenses without a prescription, an examination or a fitting by an eye care professional such as an ophthalmologist. 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) contact lenses per se are not the issue. They can be and are prescribed by eye care professionals. Many who wear contact lenses prefer the colored version for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are easy to see out of the eye. Medical problems that may result from this risky behavior include corneal abrasions, epithelial keratitis, infectious ulcers and the blinding Acanthamoeba organism. Although no cases have been documented, the report also suggests HIV transmission is a potential risk among those who exchange their contact lenses with others.

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

Media Contact: Joy H. Bell

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