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Spooky Contact Lenses May Harm Eyes

Nonprescription, Novelty Contact Lenses Can Damage Eyes
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 28, 2003 -- Transforming your eyes from green to ghoulish with novelty contact lenses may seem like good Halloween fun, but experts say nonprescription contact lenses can play dangerous tricks with your eyesight.

A new study documents six cases of teenagers and young adults who developed serious vision-threatening problems as a result of using these lenses. One 14 year old required a corneal transplant after developing a serious infection, and another 24-year-old woman was left legally blind in one eye.

Concerns about the risks associated with the novelty lenses -- which are usually purchased from unlicensed vendors on the Internet or at flea markets and specialty shops -- have also prompted the FDA to issue a warning to consumers.

"Although decorative contact lenses may seem festive during this time of year, consumers should understand that these lenses can seriously harm the eye if they are used without appropriate supervision by an eye care professional," says FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan, MD, PhD, in a news release.

Novelty Contacts May Put Eyes at Risk

In an article published in the October issue of Eye & Contact Lens, researchers described the potential dangers of using illegally sold costume contact lenses.

"Many people mistakenly think decorative contact lenses are just like sunglasses. If you're not wearing the lenses to correct refractive errors, you don't need a prescription," says researcher Thomas L. Steinemann, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, in a news release.

"This is a dangerous misconception. People who wear lenses purchased from unlicensed vendors have been given no instructions and often practice risky behavior," says Steinemann. "They don't clean or disinfect the lenses. They sleep in them. They even swap them with their friends."

Researchers say all contact lenses increase the risk of infections in the eye because they prevent normal amounts of oxygen from reaching the eye but these risks are much higher in over-the-counter contact lenses because none of the safety procedures are followed.

The FDA says it has also received reports of corneal ulcers associated with wearing decorative contact lenses longer than the recommended period. These ulcers can progress rapidly and, if left untreated, can lead to infection, scarring of the cornea, vision impairment, or even blindness or eye loss.

The FDA says other risks associated with the use of novelty contact lenses include:

  • Conjunctivitis (a highly contagious infection of the eye)
  • Corneal edema (swelling of the cornea)
  • Allergic reactions and corneal abrasion caused by poor lens fit
  • Reduction in visual acuity (sight)
  • Contrast sensitivity and other problems that can interfere with driving and other activities

Don't Play Tricks With Your Eyesight

"By purchasing contact lenses over the counter, you would abrogate every single safety guarantee in place," says H. Dwight Cavanagh, MD, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study, in a news release.

"If you want blue or orange or yellow eyes, you can have it. Just go to a licensed professional to get them," says Cavanagh, who is vice chairman of ophthalmology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He says many eye care professionals also offer contact lenses that aren't vision correcting and are just for fun.

The FDA has also sent letters to Yahoo! and the online auction web site eBay to alert them of the risks of novelty contact lenses distributed without the involvement of an eye care professional and requested their assistance in preventing improper online sales.

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