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Painful Fashion: When Trendy = Torture

High heels, huge handbags, tight jeans, and decorative contacts may be in style, but they also can take a toll on your body.

Painful Fashion Choice No. 4: Decorative Contact Lenses

With colored contacts, women can turn their eyes into bewitching shades of sapphire blue, chestnut, violet, or topaz. The lenses spike in popularity around Halloween, when partygoers wear vampire-red lenses or ones that mimic slit-like jaguar eyes.

Decorative, or "plano," contact lenses don't correct vision. Instead, they only change the eye's appearance. Teen girls and young women in their 20s and 30s are the typical customers, says Thomas Steinemann, MD, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Case Western Reserve and a spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "They're an extremely hot item."

While decorative contact lenses appear striking and playful, they should never be treated frivolously, he says. "This is not a harmless cosmetic. This is not like buying eye makeup."

Beginning around 2000, Steinemann started seeing patients with injuries from decorative contacts. He recalls one 14-year-old girl who, unbeknownst to her parents, made an impulse buy at a video store -- a $20 pair of green contact lenses -- to match a dress that she planned to wear to a party. Steinemann ended up treating her for a serious bacterial eye infection that required hospitalization and an eventual corneal transplant. "She bought these lenses over the counter -- obviously, no fitting, no screening examination, no instructions, and no follow-up," he says.

Spurred by such injury reports, decorative lenses have been under FDA regulation since 2005; now, they must be dispensed only under the supervision of a licensed eye care professional. But people are still circumventing safeguards and buying the lenses through beauty salons, flea markets, convenience stores, and especially the Internet. And that's not wise, Steinemann says. While it's fine to change eye color with decorative lenses, "you darn well better know the risks, and you'd better know how to take care of them."

Decorative contacts can cause conjunctivitis or pinkeye, corneal ulcers and abrasions, and in very serious cases, impaired vision or blindness. While these problems can crop up with any types of contacts, consumers are more likely to run into eye trouble if they don't understand proper care and if decorative lenses aren't fitted professionally. "Your cornea is no different than any other body part, and one size does not fit all. A lot of these lenses will be too tight or too loose. Either case is a bad situation," Steinemann says.

Tips for wearing decorative contact lenses safely:

  • Make sure that you get your lenses through an ophthalmologist or optometrist, who can properly fit and prescribe them. Never buy them online or in any setting that doesn't include supervision by a licensed eye care professional.
  • Go back to your eye doctor for a follow-up exam.
  • Follow your eye doctor's instructions for properly cleaning and disinfecting your lenses.
  • Wash your hands before handling your lenses.
  • Don't swap lenses with anyone, which can spread dangerous germs from eye to eye.
  • Don't sleep in decorative contact lenses because you can increase risk of bacterial infection fivefold.

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