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Ophthalmologists Warn Parents and Teens about the Dangers of Decorative Contact Lenses when Purchased Without a Prescription

10/04/2012   08:00:00 AM

Popular Halloween products can lead to eye damage and vision loss

SAN FRANCISCO — As kids across the country shop for their Halloween costumes, the American Academy of Ophthalmology is warning parents and teens about the dangers of non-prescription decorative contact lenses. Decorative contact lenses are increasingly popular to create elaborate costumes, offering blood drenched vampire eyes, glow-in-the-dark lizard eyes and more. Unfortunately, decorative contact lenses can also lead to real-life nightmares, including permanent eye damage and vision loss. One study found that wearing decorative contact lenses increased the risk for developing keratitis – a potentially blinding infection that causes an ulcer on the eye – by more than 16 times. [i] These patients were most often teenagers or young adults. 

All contact lenses require a prescription and proper fitting by an eye care professional such as an ophthalmologist – an eye medical doctor. Even if someone has perfect vision, they need to get an eye exam and a prescription in order to wear any kind of contacts, including decorative contact lenses. Products that claim "one size fits all" or "no need to see an eye specialist" can mislead consumers and may be on the market illegally. 

"Believe me; I understand the allure of these contact lenses. They may look cool but I've seen patient after patient who were unaware of the risks of these products and are now living with permanent vision loss," said Thomas Steinemann, M.D., a professor of ophthalmology at Case Western Reserve University and MetroHealth Medical Center, and a clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology."A teenage girl having to undergo a corneal transplant to save her sight isn't cool. It's devastating to the patient, the parents and to me as a physician." 

In 2005, a federal law classified all contact lenses as medical devices and restricted their distribution to licensed eye care professionals. Illegal sale of contact lenses can result in civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. Additionally, some decorative lenses, such as trendy circle lenses, are not FDA-approved. Consumers should only buy decorative contact lenses from an eye care professional or a seller who asks for a prescription and sells FDA-approved products. 

To safely wear decorative contact lenses this Halloween or any time of year, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends following these guidelines:

  • Get an eye exam from an eye care professional such as an ophthalmologist.
  • Obtain a valid prescription that includes the brand name, lens measurements, and expiration date.
  • Purchase the decorative contact lenses from a licensed eye care professional or an eye product retailer who asks for a prescription.
  • Follow the directions for cleaning, disinfecting, and wearing the lenses.
  • Never share contact lenses with another person.
  • Get follow up exams by your eye care provider.  

To obtain a prescription for decorative contact lenses, an eye care professional will measure each eye to ensure proper fit. Contacts that are not fitted by an eye care professional may scratch the eye or cause blood vessels to grow into the cornea. An eye care professional will also provide contact lens care instructions. Contacts that are left in for too long or that are not properly cleaned and disinfected can significantly increase the risk of an eye infection. 

If you notice redness, swelling, excessive discharge, pain or discomfort from wearing contact lenses, remove the lenses and seek immediate medical attention from an ophthalmologist. Eye infections like keratitis can quickly become serious and cause blindness if left untreated. For more information on decorative contact lens safety or to find an Eye M.D., visit www.geteyesmart.org. 

Read a patient story and view the American Academy of Ophthalmology's 30- and 90-second public service announcements.

[i] Sauer, A., & Bourcier, T. (2011). Microbial keratitis as a foreseeable complication of cosmetic contact lenses: A prospective study. Acta Ophthalmologica 89 (5), pp. e439-e422. DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-3768.2011.02120.x

About the American Academy of Ophthalmology
The American Academy of Ophthalmology is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons — Eye M.D.s — with more than 32,000 members worldwide. Eye health care is provided by the three "O's" – ophthalmologists, optometrists, and opticians. It is the ophthalmologist, or Eye M.D., who can treat it all: eye diseases, infections and injuries, and perform eye surgery. For more information, visit www.aao.org.

About EyeSmart
The American Academy of Ophthalmology's EyeSmart® program educates the public about the importance of eye health and empowers them to preserve their healthy vision. EyeSmart provides the most trustworthy and medically accurate information about eye diseases, conditions and injuries. OjosSanos™ is the Spanish-language version of the program. Visit www.geteyesmart.org or www.ojossanos.org to learn more.

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