From athletes to pop stars and Halloween costumes to fashion accessories, decorative contact lenses have caught the eye of many people. Not surprisingly, decorative contact lens sales increase significantly at Halloween as many look for that unique detail to enhance a costume. Unfortunately, ophthalmologists say they also see a significant increase in eye injuries to accompany increased wear of decorative lenses.

What types of eye problems can wearing decorative lenses cause?

According to eyeSmart, one study reported 13,500 emergency room visits per year related to teenagers and children wearing decorative lenses. Those injuries include:

  • Painful bacterial infections (keratitis)
  • Scratched corneas
  • Cuts & open sores on the iris
  • Permanent vision loss

In fact, 16 times more costume contact lens wearers experience a serious bacterial infection of the eye than do individuals wearing regular, corrective lenses. In addition, 60% of those who do experience bacterial infection from decorative lenses also suffer permanent vision loss.

Why are decorative lenses such a problem?

Decorative lenses are often purchased online and in novelty stores, which means they can come with hygiene problems from the start, are often worn by those who don’t know how to care for contact lenses, and can fail to provide a proper fit.

One type of decorative lenses known as circle lenses are actually illegal in the United States. Circle lenses are larger than other contact lenses and extend into the whites of the eyes. They are often worn by those who want to achieve a “doe-like look” similar to that featured in a popular pop song video. (Note: The look was digitally enhanced, not contacts.)

One woman, Laura Butler, discovered the danger of decorative contact lenses when she purchased a pair in a novelty shop for $30 and ended up paying $2,000 in medical bills in addition to experiencing severe eye pain and infection and possibly permanent partial vision loss. Butler later discovered she could have purchased two sets of decorative lenses from her optometrist for $50 plus $60 for the eye exam to achieve the same look. (Get more of Laura’s story as reported by CBS News.)

Do decorative lenses enhance vision?

While much of their use purely involves visual appeal, some professional athletes now use colored contact lenses because they say it improves their athletic performance. Examples include Brian Roberts (former professional baseball second baseman) who wore tinted contacts during day games to improve visibility and A.J. Pierzynski (catcher for the Atlanta Braves) who wears them in lieu of sunglasses, which can slip, get sweaty and add unwanted bulk.

While research has yet to prove that colored contacts do actually improve performance, Business Insider reports reports that many athletes in a variety of sports believe they do enhance performance.

How can I safely wear decorative contact lenses?

In an effort to prevent permanent eye damage and possibly blindness, heed the following advice when purchasing decorative contact lenses:

  1. Beware of lawbreakers. Contact lenses ““ whether corrective or not ““ are regulated by the FDA. Any vendor not requiring a prescription from an eye doctor and asking for a doctor’s contact information is breaking the law. Only buy contacts from a company with FDA clearance to sell contact lenses. And simply never buy circle contact lenses since they are illegal in the United States.
  2. Consult an expert. An eye doctor will not only make sure contacts fit properly and teach proper contact care, he can also help prevent significant eye disease and damage. In addition, utilize follow-up visits to make sure lenses aren’t causing any irritation. Discuss any discomfort, even if it seems minor, since damage can be cumulative.
  3. Practice proper lens care. Read and follow the instructions that accompany contacts as well as those given by the doctor. Taking care of contacts results in preventing significant inconvenience, expensive doctor bills, and even permanent damage.
  4. Be selfish. When it comes to contacts, don’t share. They are not one-size-fits-all, and infection can transfer from one person’s eyes to another’s via contacts. In addition, every individual requires a different fit, and ill-fitting contacts can cause eye damage over time.
  5. Use your prescription. Getting a prescription from an eye doctor isn’t enough; you have to actually use it when purchasing contacts. Quality contact retailers will not only ask for this prescription but for your eye doctor’s name and phone number as well.

In addition to the above, stay aware and know the signs of eye damage, which include redness, pain that doesn’t go away and decreased vision. Remove contacts, and see an eye doctor immediately if you notice any of these signs of eye damage.

Having eyes like a cheetah or your favorite rock star may seem fun at the time, but purchasing from an unauthorized seller and leaving your eye doctor out of the mix can all too easily result in an agonizing recovery process, partial vision loss and even complete blindness.

Be smart about what you put into your eyes to help ensure your good eye health for a lifetime.