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Risks of non-prescription contact lenses revealed

By Jessica Pasley
July 2010

Rita Coffee never thought a $25 pair of cosmetic contact lenses could potentially cost her something far more valuable – her eyesight.

After experiencing severe pain, burning, swelling and discharge from her left eye, the 47-year-old Nashville resident came to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Coffee had developed an infectious corneal ulcer caused by her contact lens. Coffee is among a growing number of new cases – consumers who purchase contact lenses without a prescription.

“It is illegal to distribute contact lenses without a prescription,” said Mark Ewald, M.D., the ophthalmologist treating Coffee. “It is very important to have a prescription for any kind of contact lens because improper use can lead to infection and other complications.

“Even though many people wear contact lenses with a high amount of satisfaction and problem-free use, there are risks. It is vital that users have regular eye exams and a proper fitting at the time of lens distribution.”

Coffee bought hers at a local beauty supply store, but people can get them online too.

“But I did not know I needed a prescription to buy them and the clerks didn’t tell me that either,” she said.

In a matter of 24 hours, she developed an ophthalmologic emergency.
VEI specialists say the use of decorative/cosmetic contact lenses is widespread and should not be viewed as a beauty accessory.

“Contact lenses are one of the safest forms of vision correction,” said Jeff Sonsino, O.D., assistant professor at VEI. “The lenses themselves are not dangerous. But people need to understand there are risks, and the best way to avoid some of these problems is to visit an eye doctor. Patients who wear contact lenses for any use need to be monitored.”

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