If you've ever forgotten to change your contacts, been a little lazy and didn't rinse them, or fallen asleep in them (and didn't realize it until you woke up the next morning with inexplicably perfect vision), then pay attention: A woman left her lenses in for six months and developed acanthamoeba keratitis an amoeba that ate the surface of her eyeball and blinded her.
Lian Kao, a 23-year-old Taiwanese student, reportedly left her disposable contacts in, both day and night, for six months without cleaning or changing them. That may sound extreme—and it is—but the acanthamoeba can infect your eye in a lot less time than that, says Brian Francis, M.D., an opthamologist at the Doheny Eye Center of Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA.
Kao told doctors she swam and showered with her contacts in, which is likely how she contracted this specific infection. "The number one thing I tell my patients is to not swim in their contacts; don't get them wet with regular water," Francis says. He explains that contact lenses act as sponges in water, absorbing parasites, bacteria, and other nasties. Acanthamoeba thrives in water, even water that appears to be clean, and because contact lenses deprive your eyes of oxygen and can cause micro-tears on the cornea, your eyes then become the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria.
Infections can be sneaky, building up over time, so by the time you experience pain and redness, damage has already been done. Francis says he's seen many patients with serious complications and even blindness from improperly taking care of their contacts. Short of getting Lasik, here's what you can do to protect yourself:
1. Follow the cleaning directions for your contacts, making sure to wash them as long as instructed and store them properly.
2. Don't wear your contacts in a wet environment. That means no pools, showers, saunas, or even hot tubs, as that's where the cornea-crunching bacteria thrive.
3. Don't sleep in your contacts.
4. Change them every two weeks or every month, depending on which type of lens you have.
5. Wash your hands with soap before touching your eyes.
6. Lastly, and most importantly, Francis recommends having regular eye check-ups and see your doctor at the first sign of redness or pain as most infections are treatable if caught early.