Don’t Turn a Blind Eye to Contact Lens Safety

A Guest Column By Helene D. Clayton-Jeter, OD

Approximately 40 million Americans wear contact lenses.  I am one of them.  The benefits of an unobstructed, natural view of the world are simply priceless. However, I know that with these benefits comes great responsibility on my part for ensuring that my eyes remain healthy and safe. The risk for not doing so is just too great, as unsafe practices can lead to vision threatening complications.

In addition to offering flexibility, convenience, and a “no-glasses” appearance, contacts help correct a variety of vision disorders, including nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, and poor focusing with reading material.  They also can enhance or change the appearance of the color of your eyes for cosmetic or medical reasons.

But contact lenses, and the solutions used to keep them clean, also present potential risks.  Because they have direct contact to the surface of your eyes, contact lenses can lead to serious eye infections and corneal ulcers (sores) if you don’t practice proper hygiene, care for and handle the lenses properly, or wear them as prescribed.  In rare cases, these conditions can lead to blindness.  There are a variety of contact lens materials on the market with replacement schedules that are convenient for various lifestyles.

While in clinical practice, I treated many eye infections and corneal abrasions due to improper contact lens  hygiene, and improper wearing schedules. These are preventable and it only takes one corneal injury to cause permanent damage.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where I currently work, regulates contact lenses and certain contact lens care products as medical devices. Contact lenses require a prescription and all products, including those relating to contact lenses, marketed to consumers, must be determined to be safe and effective. (Even if you have perfect vision, and your contact lenses are just “decorative” or “colored,” a contact lens prescription is required by federal law.)  The FDA does not regulate the device advertising and marketing practices that may lead to substantial consumer injury.  This regulation falls under the Federal Trade Commission.

Contact lens solutions are sold over the counter and do not require a prescription,  but incorrect use of contact lens solutions in the care of contact lenses can increase your risk of eye infections and injury—and in rare cases, can cause blindness.

Before you choose a contact lens solution, talk to your eye-care provider about the best cleaning and disinfecting method for you. For example, would a contact lens multipurpose solution, which cleans, disinfects, and conditions contact lenses, be appropriate?  Some contact lens cleaning products contain hydrogen peroxide, which requires special care for safe use.

Hydrogen peroxide solutions are preservative-free, which makes them a good option for those who are allergic or sensitive to preservatives in multipurpose solutions. But, they are not risk-free.  When multipurpose contact lens solutions or hydrogen –peroxide-based contact lens solutions are used to clean and disinfect contact lenses, steps need to be taken to ensure safe use.

Best strategies for reducing your risk of irritation and infection involve practicing proper hygiene, including hand washing and frequent contact lens case replacement; following recommended wearing schedules; using proper lens care practices for cleaning; disinfecting and storing your lenses (read and follow all product labeling instructions); and having routine eye exams with a contact lens evaluation.

Consumers should report any problems with decorative contact lenses to their local FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator .  Any adverse reactions experienced with the use of these products (contact lenses, contact lens solutions), and/or quality issues should be reported to FDA’s MedWatch Program.

Together, let’s not turn a blind eye to contact lens safety!

Portrait of Helene D. Clayton-Jeter, OD.

Helene D. Clayton-Jeter, OD

Director, Cardiovascular and Endocrine Liaison Program

Office of Health and Constituent Affairs

Office of the Commissioner

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Dr. Clayton-Jeter is the Director of the Cardiovascular and Endocrine Liaison Program in the Commissioner’s Office of Health and Constituent Affairs (OHCA) at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  She assists in planning, developing, and evaluating FDA policies and programs related to patients and health care professionals. In her role at OHCA, she serves as a channel through which health professional and patient issues and viewpoints can be brought to the attention of FDA medical and regulatory staff.  Dr. Clayton-Jeter serves as the OHCA subject-matter-expert in the optometry/ophthalmology, cardiovascular and diabetes topic areas.  She is the primary liaison to the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, sits on the Department of Health and Human Services Health (HHS) Disparities Council and the Million Hearts All HHS Agency Council.  Two 2014 gubernatorial appointments to the Commonwealth of Virginia Board of Optometry and Board of Health Professions is a testament to her past and current dedication to public service. Dr. Clayton-Jeter has a B.S. degree in Visual Science and O.D. (Doctor of Optometry) degree from Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University and holds a B.S. degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.  She practiced clinical optometry in a variety of healthcare settings for over 20 years prior to joining the staff at the Office of Health and Constituent Affairs.

Dr. Clayton-Jeter acknowledges her OHCA, Patient Liaison Team colleagues, especially Salina Miller, M.S., M.B.A. for their contribution to this article.