Safety of contact lenses, like lawn mowers and airplanes, depends far more on human behavior than on modern technology. It is a fact that few technologies start out with the intention of hurting people directly or through the environment, and most evolving threats to people are eventually recognized. It is also a fact that no situation in this world exists that can't be made much worse by human ignorance, laziness, and stupidity.
So, how can people make good contact lenses unsafe?
The most common hazard is sloppy cleaning practices. The eyes and tears produce various proteins which can build up on contact lenses. Prescribed cleaning procedures will remove that residue. Getting lazy, skipping a scheduled cleaning, using old solutions or previously used stock, these can all result in film build up. At a minimum, this can result in irritated eyes and/or blurred vision. It can also cause infections and mechanical damage so severe as to prevent further use of contacts, or even cause blindness.
The second most common hazard is external dirt and dirt. Don't swim or hot tub while wearing contact lenses unless they are shielded by leak proof swimming goggles. Don't wear contacts near fumes from solvents, acids, cleaning solutions, etc.. Be alert to dust, pollen, other allergens. Any of those irritants can be trapped under or inside the contacts. And never be so foolish as to moisten lenses in the mouth instead of in a lens case with fresh solution, or with approved eye drops.
The third most common hazard is wear time. This is an issue which is aggravated by claims from some contact lens makers. Stated simply, don't wear contacts frequently around the clock, even if they are rated for 30 days or 3 months. In the short term, long wear lenses are probably safe. However, in the long term, insufficient reach of oxygen from the air to the eye surface (cornea) causes the eye to increase blood flow through a proliferation of new blood vessels, which can eventually block vision, like cataracts. The progress of this condition, called "neovascularization", can be slow so not recognized until too late. Unless contacts have to be installed by a care giver, the wearer should seldom neglect rest times with lenses out. Some ophthalmologists recommend at least twelve hours off every week with long-wear lenses.
And don't overlook safety precautions. Just as spectacle users should have break resistant lenses or safety goggles, contact wearers should wear safety goggles when at risk. Rare stories tell of a hard contact lens stopping penetration by pieces of metal or glass that got through the eyelid, but modern contacts cover only a small portion of the eye.
The natural eye has evolved over numerous millenia to be largely self protecting. But don't ignore common sense care to reduce the probability of injury.
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by Dr. Don Miller
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