Halloween is just around the corner, and that means amazing costumes are in order! But be warned: Every year around this spooky time, eye doctors see an uptick in eye injuries, irritations and infections caused by decorative, over-the-counter (OTC) contact lenses. So, if you’re thinking about enhancing your Halloween zombie or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume with ghoulish or colored contact lenses, read this story first.
According to Key-Whitman Eye Center’s therapeutic optometrist Martin L. Faber, O.D., “We always see a few cases during the Halloween season, where people who wore decorative OTC lenses come in with eye injuries or irritation. If you multiply that number by the number of eye doctors in the U.S., that’s a pretty big chunk of completely preventable eye problems.”
Delaying Treatment Can Lead to Eye Infections and Blindness
One of the most serious risks people face when wearing OTC lenses is experiencing corneal ulcers. This condition results when a bacterial infection occurs under the lens and can cause pain, discomfort and even blindness. Corneal ulcers can be especially problematic if the patient doesn’t seek treatment immediately.
“This occurred to a patient of mine who visited a local nail salon where she purchased decorative contacts. She was given no instruction on how to insert, remove or sterilize the lenses, and consequently ended up with corneal ulcers” shares Dr. Faber.
“Unfortunately, the young lady couldn’t get the lenses out of her eyes and delayed getting treatment because she was afraid to tell her parents. We were able to get the infection under control, but unfortunately, she ended up being legally blind in one eye,” Dr. Faber cautions.
OTC Lenses Can Also Cause Corneal Abrasions and Conjunctivitis
Other potential OTC contact lens dangers include corneal abrasions, which can result when the lenses injure or scratch the eyes. This can occur when lenses don’t fit the eye properly (contacts should never be considered a one-size-fits-all device), and/or people don’t receive (or follow) proper instructions on how to insert, remove and sterilize the lenses. Dr. Faber warns, “You’re very unlikely to get the proper fit or care instructions if you purchase contacts over the counter.”
Conjunctivitis is a generic infection of the eye and often arises with OTC contact lenses. “Often, businesses that sell these lenses without a prescription will allow people to demo the lenses before they buy them, and then repackage and resell them to other people without proper sterilization,” says Dr. Faber.
If you experience any of the following symptoms after wearing any type of contact lenses, Dr. Faber encourages you to see an eye doctor right away:
- Inability to remove contact lenses.
- Eye pain.
- General redness that doesn’t go away, with increasing pain.
- Light sensitivity (occurs due to exposed nerve endings).
- Bumps on the eyelids.
Avoid Contact Lens Suppliers That Don’t Require a Prescription
“Along with nail salons, decorative lenses often show up at flea markets and novelty shops. Because it’s illegal to sell contact lenses without a doctor’s prescription, many of these sources will sell the lenses for a short period of time (i.e. Halloween season) so they don’t get caught breaking federal law and can avoid a hefty fine,” Dr. Faber says.
The prevalence of decorative OTC lenses has grown in recent years following the advent and popularity of disposable lenses. Previously, you could only purchase contacts through an eye doctor. Disposable lenses need to be purchased more frequently than conventional soft or hard lenses, so the FDA adjusted regulations so consumers would have easier access to prescription contacts.
Because contacts are so commonplace today, Dr. Faber finds that “many consumers are unaware that lenses are not a cosmetic, but rather a medical device that is regulated by the FDA. It is illegal to sell contact lenses without a prescription and any supplier who doesn’t require a prescription is breaking the law.”
An Eye Doctor Can Fit and Prescribe Safe, Decorative Lenses for You
Dr. Faber isn’t suggesting that people avoid decorative lenses altogether, he just cautions that you should do so under an eye doctor’s care. He advises consumers to “schedule a contact lens fitting with a licensed eye doctor who can issue a written prescription, and then you can have it filled by an authorized seller. Your optometrist or ophthalmologist will allow you to try on a variety of trial lenses to ensure the lenses fit appropriately and educate you on proper lens care.”
According to Dr. Faber, “The most important part of a lens fitting is the relationship the patient builds with the eye doctor. Everyone should see an eye doctor for an annual eye health exam.