Brian Francis, M.D., an ophthalmologist for the Doheny Eye Center at Orange Coast Memorial Hospital, says he's seen plenty of patients with severe complications and even blindness from improperly taking care of their lenses. "You should never sleep in your contacts, no matter how tired you are," he says, adding that he doesn't even recommend the lenses made to be used overnight.
But it was Kao's habit of showering and swimming with her contacts in that likely got her this particular infection, Francis says. "Contact lenses act as sponges in water and they'll absorb bacteria, parasites and other nasty things in water," he explains. Once the bacteria are in, the area between the lens and the eye is a perfect breeding ground for them to grow and fester. Even worse, many infections start doing damage to your eyes before you ever have pain.
I'll admit it: I swim with my contacts in. Most of my friends with contacts do. After an embarrassing incident in high school where I walked into an open pool in a friend's backyard because I wasn't wearing my contacts and am blind as a bat, I figured I'd rather risk infection and irritation than humiliation again. While I'm confessing my eye hygiene sins, sometimes I get lazy and don't rinse them properly, wear them far too many hours during the day, and sometimes wear them longer than the month I'm supposed to. And we won't talk about all the dumb stuff I've done like driving home with only one lens in because the other one had gotten stuck inside my eyelid.
But Kao's story should serve as a warning to all of us who may have gotten lax in our contact lens care. I've had contacts for over 20 years (I got them as a kid when my eye glasses prescription got ridiculously thick) and I, like many other contacts vets, may think that because we've been sloppy for so long and nothing bad has happened that means we're OK.
Francis is not a fan of that mentality. Contact lenses are medical equipment and they go in your eye. That reason alone should inspire you to be better about taking care of them. And be sure to see your doctor at the slightest sign of pain or redness as Francis says most infections are treatable if caught early on. In the meantime, be sure to give your eyes regular breaks to "breathe" by wearing glasses — even if you do look like Groucho Marx in them (like me... sigh).
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