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Contact lens horror stories show why you shouldn't sleep or swim in them

The CDC wants to remind people not to sleep in their contact lenses, and they shared six grisly stories to demonstrate why.
/ Source: NBC News

One man wore his contact lenses overnight while hunting. He ended up needing a corneal transplant to save his eye. Ditto for another man who did not bother to take his lenses out for two weeks.

Two teenagers who slept in their lenses — bought without prescriptions — ended up with permanent scarring.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants to remind people not to sleep in their contact lenses, and they put together six grisly stories to demonstrate why.

“Sleeping in contact lenses is one of the most frequently reported contact lens risk behaviors and one with a high relative risk for corneal infection,” the team wrote in CDC’s weekly report.

Most of the people whose cases they described should have known better. One example is a 34-year-old man who had worn contact lenses for half his life.

“He reported sleeping in his contact lenses three to four nights per week and swimming with contact lenses. He was treated for bacterial and fungal microbial keratitis for two months with­out improvement,” the CDC’s Jennifer Cope and colleagues wrote in their report.

His doctors then tried having him use antiseptic drops every hour for six months. Finally, the man, who had been wearing soft contact lenses, had to switch to semi-rigid lenses to get clear vision.

Another patient, 57 years old, “reported wearing the same soft contact lenses continuously for approximately two weeks,” the CDC-led team wrote.

“He did not disinfect his lenses daily, slept in them on a regular basis, and did not replace them regularly,” they added. “A corneal transplant was required to save the right eye.”

Some of the descriptions of what happened when people’s eyes became infected can be stomach-turning. The hunter who slept in his lenses had been using antibiotic and steroid drops several times a day to try to clear his infection.

“While in the shower, he wiped his eyes with a towel, then heard a popping sound and felt a painful sensation in his left eye,” the team wrote.

“He was referred to ophthalmology where a large perforated corneal ulcer was diagnosed. An urgent corneal transplant was performed to reestablish the integrity of the eye,” they added.

People who sleep and swim while wearing contact lenses can develop infections not only with bacteria, but with parasites and viruses, which are harder to kill off. They can permanently scar the cornea, which is the clear layer on top of the eyeball.

“Some of the patients described in this series sought care in an emergency department, where it is more costly to receive care,” Copeland’s team added. For the 45 million Americans who wear contact lenses, it’s cheaper and easier to just keep lenses clean, see an eye professional regularly and follow directions.

Then there’s the case of the British woman who apparently had a contact lens stuck under her eyelid for 28 years. In her case, it did not appear that she slept in the lens, but thought that perhaps it had become wedged far under the lid by accident.

"The patient was hit in the left eye with a shuttlecock while playing badminton at the age of 14,” Dr. Sirjhun Patel and colleagues at a National Health Service clinic in Dundee, Scotland wrote in the British Medical Journal Case Reports last week.

“The patient was wearing a rigid gas permeable contact lens at the time, which was never found. It was assumed that the contact lens dislodged out of the eye and was lost."

But it appears to have stayed under her eyelid, where skin grew over it and formed a cyst that she only noticed when it became inflamed years later.