Having recently sat in the ER with my partner through the early hours of the morning after a good two-thirds of his contact lens broke away from the rest and rolled around his eye socket, you’ll perhaps understand why I don’t look on contact lenses all that favorably. My personal bias aside, however, recent warnings from scientists in the UK draw our attention to something a lot of people who wear contact lenses do that could in fact lead to them going blind.
Washing contact lenses in tap water. Don’t do it. Here’s why:
The Acanthamoeba is a naturally occurring single-celled organism that is found in untreated soil and liquids, including tap water. Should one of the little blighters manage to come into contact with the eye, it can penetrate the cornea, especially easy if already damaged, and Acanthamoeba keratitis can occur.
Symptoms include redness and eye pain, tearing, light sensitivity, blurred vision, discharge, and feeling as though there is a foreign body in the eye.
Due to the fact that many of the symptoms resemble those associated with Pinkeye, Acanthamoeba keratitis can be difficult for an eye doctor to diagnose. In fact, an Acanthamoeba keratitis diagnosis is usually reached once the symptoms persist despite antibiotics. The presence of a ring-like ulceration in the eye can also be used as an indicator.
While Acanthamoeba poses a risk to everyone, contact lens wearers are at particular risk.
How bad could it really be? Dr Fiona Henriquez, from the University of the West of Scotland, who has been conducting tests on new lens solutions to try and better fight Acanthamoeba contamination, told ITV news:
It is a potential problem for every single contact lens wearer. The incidence is quite low but that may be a problem with diagnosis. There are no effective drug treatments. The drugs used are often ineffective and it’s a very brutal regime. It requires hospitalisation and topical applications of a toxic substance to the eye. We’re trying to improve the elimination of this parasite and prevent blindness.
If treatment isn’t effective, there is the possibility of blindness and the need for a corneal transplant. And here’s the scare-quote from the Associated Press that is being used to clobber home the potential risk:
“An estimated 3.7 contact lens wearers in the UK and more than 125 million worldwide are at risk from acanthamoeba, say scientists.”
But there is good news. There are very simple things you can do to reduce the risk of infection. A brief list includes the following:
- Follow instructions on how to care for your lenses that were given you by your eye doctor.
- Use only products that your eye doctor recommends.
- As above, never use tap water to clean contact lenses.
- Never swim, shower or use a hot tub while wearing them. If you must wear your contact lenses while swimming, make sure to wear airtight goggles and afterwards dispose of your lenses.
- Single use daily contact lenses are considered safer than reusable ones.
- If your lenses are not disposables, upon removing, always clean them in multipurpose solution and then store them overnight in fresh disinfecting solution.
- Make sure to replace your lenses as often as is recommended by your eye doctor.
- Lastly, always wash and thoroughly dry your hands before handling your lenses.
To put this all in perspective, it should be noted that statistics from the UK show only around 75 people per year actually tangle with Acanthamoeba to any great extent, but when such a risk is so easily reduced, it seems silly not to listen to the warnings and take extra care.
For more information on Acanthamoeba, click here for the CDC fact-file.