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Can Using Contact Lenses Lead to Blindness?

Written by David Evans, PhD, MBA   Posted on April 27, 2017

During my tenure as a grad student, a colleague and good friend of mine, Dr. Kevin Liedel, was researching a particular type of amoeba that can harm the eye. His research was being sponsored by a contact lens manufacturer, and as a contact lens wearer myself — I’ve been wearing disposable lenses for 40 years — I was drawn to his findings and the impact the relatively common amoeba could cause.

I mention this because it ties directly to a great article I came across recently via BBC News about a 30-year old female contact lens wearer who lost vision in one eye as a result of an infection she contracted via her contact lens.

contact lens

The woman was experiencing extreme eye pain and light sensitivity, and thought that perhaps it was simply a mild infection that would pass in a day or two. She would spend the next couple years enduring a number of tests and treatments, including a cornea transplant in effort to remedy the problem. But none proved effective. In actual fact, what was causing her pain was a condition called Acanthamoeba Keratitis (AK), a rare infection linked with microorganisms that invade the cornea and damage vision. Contact lens wearers are at greater risk of this sort of infection because the daily wear causes small abrasions in the cornea through which microorganisms can penetrate the surface of the eye.

Alarmed and shocked by the diagnosis, the woman wondered how on earth she could have contracted such a condition as she never showered or swam while wearing her contacts. In her mind, she’d been following directions for safe handling. What she didn’t realize was that if you don’t dry your hands adequately after washing them (before handling your lenses), you can in fact transfer harmful microorganisms capable of damaging vision like AK.

This follows directly with my friend’s findings. Although the amoeba is found practically everywhere in nature (dirt, water, air) and is exceedingly contagious and aggressive, infection with contact lenses can be easily avoidable if the appropriate care is taken. Dr. Liedel found that fancy antiseptics are not needed, instead the easiest solution is simple hygiene: using clean, dry hands, rub the lenses in a high-quality contact lens solution (like Renu or Optifree) before storing the lenses. The trouble is, there are a lot of contact lens wearers like the woman in question who aren’t aware of the serious risks associated with water contamination and the relatively easy way to ensure proper lens care. She was so affected by this realization that she actually took this grievance all the way to the British Contact Lens Association and has since helped to develop a “No Water” sticker that opticians can stick on their boxes to better inform consumers. The hope is that eventually this warning will automatically be printed on the boxes to alert contact lens wearers of the serious issues that contamination can cause.

Multi-million dollar settlements over the last 5+ years have helped put a spotlight on this problem, with industry insiders now reevaluating the manner with which they educate and alert consumers about the potential hazards associated with use. Even though the contact lens products themselves are not at fault, it’s imperative that proper use is highlighted so that people are best protected against AK and other potentially hazardous contaminants. (Check out this list of contact lens do’s and don’ts.)

I was amazed at my friend’s research findings 20 years ago that there is no substitute for simple hygiene.  It helped to shape my understanding of how important it is to be extremely careful when placing and removing my own contact lenses. I’ll certainly be sending the article his way (he’s a big shot over at Alcon now, one of the eye care industry’s leading innovators) and thanking him again for helping to draw my attention to this important issue.

I can only hope that the increased attention to the subject that this article and the recent lawsuits have provided help to better educate and inform all contact lens wearers to the importance of proper contact lens handling.

For more contact lens information, check out our 6 tips for beating contact lens discomfort.