I have been wearing contact lenses for more than 20 years. And like most humans, I haven’t always followed the best practices when it comes to my eye health. I used to wear my contacts for way too long and would occasionally sleep in them. Over the years, I’ve had times when my eyes have felt irritated but never anything so major that I felt like I needed to see a doctor. If they were bothering me, I’d just switch to my glasses for a few days to let my eyes breathe.
That all changed this past August, when my eyes started feeling extra irritated. Frankly, I had not been on top of cleaning or changing my lenses. I was working two jobs—a day job and another three-nights-a-week midnight shift at a second gig. On the days that I was working both jobs, I was only getting a few hours of sleep a night. Because of this, I wouldn’t even bother to take out my contacts. I lost track of time and couldn’t even tell you if I ever changed to a fresh pair.
One Thursday night, as I was drifting off, one eye felt particularly itchy. In hindsight, I should have taken out my contacts right then. But to be fair, I was using extended-wear contacts—it said on the box you can sleep in them! So I let my exhaustion take over and fell asleep in my contacts. The next morning, I popped them out and put on my glasses. Since switching to my glasses had always calmed down my eyes in the past, I assumed it would work again. But over the next few days, my eyes got progressively more red and runny. By the time I woke up on Sunday, one eye was completely crusted shut. I couldn’t see a thing out of it.
I called out of work, and on Monday morning, I went to the urgent care. They immediately sent me to an eye doctor down the road. He took one look at my eye and said, “This is really bad.” As he examined me, he explained that I had developed an ulcer and it was covering my pupil and cornea—basically, my entire eye. You know those eye boogers you get in the corner of your eyes? It looked like a giant one of those. I asked, “Am I going to lose my eye?” His answer terrified me. He said, “I don’t know. You might lose your vision.”
The eye doctor sent me to the Detroit Receiving Hospital, which was over an hour away. The hospital is connected to the esteemed Kresge Eye Institute, so I knew I’d be in good hands. Once I was admitted, the attending doctor came to examine my eye. When he saw how big the ulcer was, he couldn’t hide his shock. He told me he had to figure out what type of bacteria caused the ulcer so that he could prescribe the right medication. To do this, they put numbing drops in my eye and then used a razor blade to carefully scrape off some of the ulcer to test. I covered my good eye during the process because I knew if I saw a razor blade coming toward me, I’d lose it.
After they finished, I again asked for the worst-case scenario and was told it was possible that I’d never have vision in that eye again. I freaked out. I work with a therapy program for kids and it requires me to drive them around. If I lost sight in one eye, would I still be able to drive? I texted a friend who works in the medical field and he told me that they always give you the worst-case scenario because they want you to take the situation seriously. My friend told me to just focus on following the doctor’s instructions.
Those instructions were pretty intense. I was prescribed eye drops that had to be put in my eye every 30 minutes—24 hours a day. Not only that, but the drops also had to be refrigerated. So if I left the house, I had to pack a cooler to take them with me. And don’t even get me started on the price. Even with insurance, it cost $100 for a one-week supply.
Another hardship was the fact that I had to go back to the hospital every day so that a doctor could monitor my progress. If they noticed my cornea was thinning, they would have to rush me into emergency surgery to try and save my eye. Not only did that make these daily trips stressful, but it was also a three-hour round trip and I couldn’t drive. Without the help of my parents driving me, I don’t know what I would have done.
It took me about three weeks to start regaining some vision in my eye. Now, it’s been a few months, and even though things are still very blurry, I have started to be able to make out shapes. Thankfully, because my other eye is totally fine, I am able to drive again.
Unfortunately, I am not out of the woods yet. I may still need a cornea transplant. My doctors want to give my eye another few months to heal before they decide the best course of action. If possible, I’d prefer not to have the transplant. They literally take the cornea of a dead person and use that. It freaks me out. So if I am able to regain about 60 percent to 70 percent of my vision in that eye, I’d be happy with that. No matter what, I’m past the worst-case scenario—I will not lose my vision completely and that is something to celebrate.
So, why did this happen to me? My doctor said that extended-wear lenses can be misleading. Even though the box says you can sleep in them, he insists you shouldn’t. Contact solution is what helps clean your lenses. So when you don’t take them out and put them in solution, it’s possible that bacteria is building up between your eye and the contacts. That’s what happened to me—and that bacteria grew and grew until I had a giant ulcer.
My doctor even told me that about 50 percent of the people they see at the eye center come in for issues related to contacts. Scary! Temporarily losing my vision was traumatic and is something I never want to experience again. I will never sleep in my contacts again and I hope you won’t either. The convenience is just not worth the risk.
How to Take Care of Your Contact Lenses
Beware of bacteria. If you’re going to touch your contacts, hand washing is important—but your fingers aren’t the only place that germs lurk. “Bacteria can thrive on contacts or on a contact lens case,” explains Craig See, MD, an ophthalmologist at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland.
His top tips for avoiding bacteria growth: Never wear your contact lenses for longer than the instructions deem safe and use only contact solution to clean them. In case you were wondering: No, water is not safe to clean them with.
Give your eyes a break. How long can you really wear your contacts? Experts say 12 hours or less is the golden rule. Dr. See points out that even if you don’t develop an infection from keeping them in too long, overwearing your lenses can cause inflammation and low oxygen levels, which can damage the surface of your eye.
“If your eyes begin to feel irritated later in the day, that’s the sign you should take your lenses out,” he adds. “Everybody who wears contacts should have an updated pair of glasses they can use if they’re not able to wear the lenses.”
Never sleep in your contacts! There are plenty of brands that say their lenses can be slept in. However, Dr. See advises against it. “A lot of the patients we see with infections are people who slept in their lenses,” he explains. “Looking at the studies, we know that the rates [of infection] are much higher if you do this because any bacteria that starts to grow is sitting on your eye and multiplying.”
Consider daily lenses. Yes, daily lenses are more expensive than continuous-wear contacts, but Dr. See says they are worth it—and may even save you money on doctor visits down the line. However, if you simply can’t afford the expense, Dr. See says staying super diligent about cleaning and storing your lenses properly is the next best thing.
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