- A woman in the UK became legally blind as a result of a severe parasitic infection caused by wearing her contacts in the shower, according to a new report in The New England Journal of Medicine.
- At least one other similar case in the UK has been reported: a 29-year-old man who got amoebas in his eyeball after showering with his contacts in, requiring a corneal transplant.
- Wearing contacts in the shower or while swimming exposes the fragile tissue of the eye to serious risk of infection, according to an eye doctor.
- Taking out contacts before you may come in contact with water and cleaning them appropriately every night can help keep your eyes safe.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.
Contact wearers, you may want to take this sitting down (and with your glasses on): A 41-year-old woman in the UK became legally blind after a severe infection left her with permanent scars on her cornea, the clear top lens of the eyeball.
Researchers found that the woman had worn her contacts while showering and swimming, allowing microscopic critters called amoebas to get inside her eyeball and grow there, causing intense pain, blurry vision, and irreversible damage, according to a report published July 18 in The New England Journal of Medicine.
This isn’t the first time that’s happened. A 29-year-old man in the UK was blinded last year after he developed the same type of infection from regularly showering while wearing contacts, a report published this month by Fox News said.
Though these types of cases are rare, they highlight the incredibly fragile nature of the human eyeball and the inherent risks of wearing contacts, Dr. John Hovanesian, a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told INSIDER.
While most people can wear contact lenses safely with simple precautions, taking risks like wearing them overnight or exposing them to water is like being in a car without a seat belt, Hovanesian said.
“Most of the time you’ll get away with it, but if something bad happens, it can get ugly,” he said.
Here are the risks that contact wearers should be aware of – and how to stay safe.
Wearing contacts in water can be dangerous
Wearing contacts in the pool or shower turns your eyeball into a petri dish, according to Hovanesian.
“A contact lens is like a tiny little sponge you put in your eye,” he said. “It absorbs stuff and holds it in contact with your eye, where the warm, moist environment gives fungus and amoebas time to grow.”
Tap water, or any kind of standing water like a pool, hot tub, or lake, is full of bacteria and other tiny organisms that would love to hitch a ride into your body.
The surface of the eye is thin and fragile – about half a millimeter thick – making it vulnerable to microbial invasion.
Hovanesian said that when your eyes become dry, they also rub against the contact lens, creating tiny sores that microbial invaders can take advantage of to get inside your body.
Most people won’t notice anything is wrong until after they remove their contacts, because the lens functions as a kind of “second skin” that keeps the eye comfortable, Hovanesian said.
“Often people feel fine until they take out their contacts, and by then it’s almost too late,” he said.
Sleeping in your contacts is a bad idea too
Like the rest of your body, your eyes use sleeping hours as an opportunity to heal. Wearing contacts to bed prevents this, while also allowing whatever you may have picked up during the day to marinate on your eyeballs.
Hovanesian said that sleeping in contacts makes you four times as likely to get an eye infection.
Eye infections, while treatable, can cause permanent damage
Wearing contacts can expose your eyeballs to many types of microorganisms that can cause infection. Both cases in the UK were caused by Acanthamoeba, a particularly nasty single-celled critter found worldwide in water, soil, and dust. It can even be found in drinking water.
“The water can be safe to drink because your stomach is equipped to deal with microbes; your eyes are not,” Hovanesian said.
Acanthamoeba can take weeks to develop but can cause severe infection and is exceptionally painful.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the woman had two months of pain, blurry vision, and sensitivity to light before she went to a clinic.
Treatment of the infection involves applying a strong antiseptic solution directly to your eyeball. It’s like a pool-cleaning chemical, but stronger, Hovanesian said, and it’s not a fun experience.
The effectiveness of the treatment is a race against time, as the microbes try to survive and thrive inside your eye, wreaking havoc.
“Even when we succeed, the damage is permanent,” Hovanesian said.
Both people in the UK required a partial corneal transplant, a painful procedure that requires a year of recovery and still doesn’t completely restore vision.
The best way to prevent infection is by keeping contacts clean and taking them out before your shower, swim, or sleep
Whether you wear daily disposable contacts or longer-term contacts, take them out before bed or before they could come into contact with water, such as in a pool, tub, or shower.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before touching your eyes or handling your contacts. Store contacts in a clean case designed for them, and use a contact solution approved by the Food and Drug Administration; while the solution won’t kill every kind of microbe, it will kill a lot of them. And never rinse or wet your contacts in water.
Most importantly, if your contacts feel uncomfortable or you suspect they’ve been contaminated, take them out and throw them away. Replacing a set of contact lenses is cheaper and easier than trying to treat an eye infection.
“Eyes are a delicate, precious thing that you cannot replace,” Hovanesian said. “We shouldn’t be scared, but we should be careful.”