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Don’t Lick and Stick: Dirty Contacts Linked to Serious Eye Infections

Image: Microscopic image of Microbial Keratitis

Microscopic image of Microbial Keratitis CDC

Are you one of those people who licks their contact lenses and puts them right back into your eye? Or do you sleep with them in? If so, you may be part of this new statistic.

Close to a million people a year get serious cases of an eye infection called keratitis, and most can be blamed on dirty contact lenses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

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It’s the first systematic look at the problem, and it shows your optometrist or ophthalmologist is right in warning you about contact lens hygiene. These infections are serious and common.

“CDC estimates that, each year, Americans make nearly a million doctor visits for keratitis, at a cost of $175 million in direct healthcare costs,” CDC said in a statement.

"Contact lens wear is one of the primary culprits that lead to infections.”

“Most eye infections are easily treatable if caught early but can lead to inflammation, pain and even blindness if people don’t seek treatment. Contact lens wear is one of the primary culprits that lead to infections.”

CDC experts surveyed data from walk-in and emergency clinics around the country for 2010. They found 930,000 visits for keratitis, most of which resulted in a prescription for antibiotics. The average cost of a visit was $150, but people who went to emergency rooms racked up nearly $600 in charges.

Image: Contact lens wear is linked to higher risk of keratitis
Contact lens wear is linked to higher risk of keratitis. This is what it looks like. CDC

And CDC says the total of $175 million nationally is almost certainly an underestimate, because the databases the researchers looked at don’t include visits to optometrists, who can also treat these infections.

The worst offenders are the overnight-wear lenses — there were 20 cases per 10,000 users of these types of extended-wear lens. Ordinary soft lenses were responsible for 5 cases per 10,000, while hard lenses caused about 4 in 100,000 cases.

How to avoid these nasty infections?

  • Wash hands with soap and water and dry well before touching contact lenses
  • Take contacts out before bed, showering or swimming
  • Rub and rinse contacts in disinfecting solution each time they're remove.
  • Rub and rinse the case with contact lens solution, dry with a clean tissue, and store upside down with the caps off after each use.
  • Replace contact lens case at least once every three months.
  • Don’t “top off” solution in lens case. Use only fresh contact lens solution each time.
  • Carry a spare pair of glasses in case contacts must be removed.