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Dirty Little Secret: Almost Nobody Cleans Contacts Properly

Odds are that's a nasty dirty lens.
Marek Brzezinski
Odds are that's a nasty dirty lens.

People who wear contact lenses say they're diligent about keeping them clean. But press them for details, and it turns out that hardly anyone is doing it the right way.

"It's horrible," says Dwight Cavanagh, a clinical professor of ophthalmology at UT Southwestern Medical Center who surveyed contact wearers' hygiene habits. "It was like, 'Mom, I cleaned up my room.' If you go up on the second floor and open the door and look under the bed, what are you going to find?"

In a survey of more than 400 contact lens wearers, Cavanagh found that just 2 percent of them are following the rules for safe contact lens use. Chief among the sins is showering or swimming while wearing contacts, sleeping in them and using them longer than recommended before throwing them out.

People also commit "solution misuse," topping off the disinfectant solution in the case rather than starting afresh, and 47 percent of the people asked said they never replace their lens case, or only do so when the eye doctor gives them a new one at the annual visit. The research was published in the December issue of Optometry and Vision Science.

A separate new survey found that people have turned to beer, baby oil, Coke, petroleum jelly, lemonade, fruit juice, and butter as oh-so-wrong alternatives to contact lens solution. That was from an August 2011 survey in the United Kingdom by Bausch + Lomb, a lens solution manufacturer.

"Do you want to be one of those people who is going blind and it hurts like hell and you can't work for three months?" Cavanagh asked Shots. "Once you've got a serious eye infection going in your cornea, you're in trouble."

Eye infections caused by contact lenses are relatively rare; the risk ranges from 1 in 7,500 for hard-lens wearers to 1 in 500 for people who sleep in daily wear lenses. But multiply that by the 40 million people who put lenses in their eyes every day, and you can see why Cavanagh, a corneal surgeon who has to try to fix the damage, gets agitated.

"We see patients all the time with pseudomonas ulcers, gray green pus, they go blind," he continues. "We see amoeba infections from people showering in their contacts, going swimming in lakes. These infections are horrible."

OK, OK, you got our attention. Shots promises to no longer lick a contact lens before inserting. And showering or swimming with contacts is clearly a big no-no. That exposes eyes to Acanthamoeba, an organism that commonly lives in tap water and lakes. Some infections have involved contaminated contact lens solution, but other people have been infected by showering or swimming.

The American Academy of Opthalmology has good information about the pluses and minuses of types of contact lenses, and how to keep lenses clean.

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