Poll results released today by charity Fight for Sight highlight that many Brits are frequently putting their eyesight at risk through unsafe contact lens habits, unaware that these could lead to a painful and sight-threatening eye infection called Acanthamoeba keratitis.
Of those Brits who wear contact lenses polled by YouGov on behalf of the charity, 56% admitted they’d worn their contact lenses for more than the recommended time of 12 hours a day; over half (54%) admitted to having gone swimming or showering in contact lenses, and 47% of contact lens wearing Brits admitted to having slept in them.
15% had put contact lenses in their mouth to clean or lubricate them, and two percent had even shared contact lenses with others when they had already been used.
According to the poll, almost a third (33%) of Brits who wear contact lenses do not know that wearing contact lenses that have been washed in water can be sight-threatening, highlighting a lack of awareness around the risks associated with exposing contact lenses to water. Nearly half (47%) said that information about the dangers of exposure to tap water was not clear on contact lens packaging or accompanying information materials.
Fight for Sight is raising awareness of the need to wash contact lenses in the correct solutions, after research funded by the charity last year showed a rise in cases of this type of eye infection. The charity also is urging manufacturers to make the ‘no water’ message clearer on packaging.
The most severely affected patients (a quarter of the total) have less than 25% of vision, face prolonged treatment or become blind following the disease. Overall, 25% of people affected require corneal transplants to treat the disease or restore vision.
Dr Neil Ebenezer, Director of Research, Policy and Innovation at Fight for Sight, said:
This type of infection can have serious consequence and even result in blindness, so the lack of awareness around the correct use of contact lenses is concerning. People who wear contact lenses need to make sure they thoroughly wash and dry their hands before handling them, and should avoid wearing them while swimming, face washing or bathing. Contact lens manufacturers should also do their part by making the ‘no water’ message clearer on all contact lens packaging and accompanying literature, and this message should be re-emphasized by opticians to ensure patients follow this important advice.”
Nick Humphreys (29) from Shrewsbury, contracted Acanthamoeba keratitis in January 2018 and now has no sight in his right eye.
Nick thought he simply had a bit of grit in his eye, until one day he couldn’t manage to open his eye at all and was having to drive with one eye shut. Concerned, he went to see his optometrist who referred him to hospital, where, seven days later and after multiple tests, he was diagnosed with Acanthamoeba keratitis. After two different treatments, Nick has no sight in his right eye but is waiting for a corneal transplant which he hopes will restore some of his vision.
“The whole experience was terrifying – it was agonizingly painful and I didn’t know what was going to happen with my sight. At the beginning, I was in and out of hospital daily having toxic drops put in my eye every hour. I couldn’t work for six months, having to sit in a dark room wearing sunglasses because I was so photosensitive. Eventually, after months of doctors not knowing what to do about it, I had treatment - corneal cross linking, a procedure that aims to make the tissues in your cornea stronger. Coincidentally at around the same time, the bug finally went. This allowed me to go back to work for a month before I had a second surgery – an amniotic membrane transplant – which involved having a contact lens stitched onto my eyeball. It was as vile as it sounds.
“Though medically speaking the operation went well, when I removed the patch and looked at the eye in the mirror, my heart sank. I felt like something from the exorcist was looking back at me. Though I was now pain-free and able to resume a normal life, depression and anxiety kicked in because of my changed appearance. I’m now starting to feel slightly better about it all but still do not have sight in my right eye and am waiting for a corneal transplant to try and improve my vision.
“There needs to be more information on contact lens packaging about the risk of Acanthamoeba keratitis – so few contact lens wearers are actually aware this could happen if you don’t use contact lenses correctly.”
Nick is now working with Fight for Sight to help raise awareness of the condition following his experience.
What is Acanthamoeba keratitis?
Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK) is a sight-threatening infection of the cornea - the clear ‘window’ at the front of the eye - and can be very painful. The infection is caused by a microscopic organism called Acanthamoeba, which is common in nature and is usually found in bodies of water (lakes, oceans and rivers) as well as domestic tap water, swimming pools, hot tubs, soil and air.
Acanthamoeba keratitis currently affects roughly 1.2 to 3 million people each year across the world, and contact lens wearers constitute ≥90% of affected patients in the UK.
Using tap water to clean or store contact lenses, contaminating lenses with tap, pool or hot tub water and having poor contact lens hygiene increases the risk of infection. Examples of poor lens hygiene are not using disinfection solutions properly, reusing the solution in the contact lens case, failing to empty and dry the contact lens case after use and storing lenses in water overnight.
Wearing contact lenses when swimming or taking a shower also increases risk, as does putting in lenses with wet hands from tap water.
Acanthamoeba keratitis needs immediate attention, as it can result in permanent visual impairment or complete sight loss. It’s difficult to treat, with treatment requiring prolonged use of antiseptic and sometimes antibiotic eye drops. Painkillers may also be necessary.
The most serious infections will need a corneal transplant, which involves surgery to remove the damaged cornea and replace it with a healthy one from a suitable donor.
Fight for Sight, who established the UK corneal transplant service in 1983, is actively campaigning to raise awareness of the preventable nature of Acanthamoeba keratitis through proper contact lens care, believing there is a lack of information from contact lens dispensers and manufacturers on the risks associated with exposing contact lenses to water. Fight for Sight is actively encouraging contact lens manufacturers to provide more contact lens care literature in all packaging.
Carnt, N. et al. (2018) Acanthamoeba keratitis: confirmation of the UK outbreak and a prospective case-control study identifying contributing risk factors. Br J Ophthalmol. doi.org/10.1136/bjophthalmol-2018-312544.
Lim, C.H.L. et al. (2019) A review of cosmetic contact lens infections. Eye (Lond). doi.org/10.1038/s41433-018-0257-2.