If you wear contact lenses, you probably take them for granted—you put them in when you get up, go about your life as usual, and take them out at the end of the day. But, as one woman discovered, those little lenses can cause serious issues if they’re used improperly.
Meabh McHugh-Hill, a student in Liverpool, England started using contacts when she was 16. Now 23, the more McHugh-Hill wore contacts, the more prone she was to dry eyes and eye infections, she tells The Mirror. But things recently escalated in a painful way when she suffered eye damage after her contact lens dried out and became glued to her eye. McHugh-Hill realized she had left her lenses in for too long and, while hastily trying to remove them, accidentally tore her left eye’s cornea, the transparent layer of the front of her eye.
“I suffered a week of unbearable pain—it was excruciating, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” McHugh-Hill said. Her doctors told her that because she’d taken out her contacts when her eye lacked enough moisture, she pulled the top layer of her eye away, giving herself a corneal ulcer, i.e. an abscess or sore on the eye.
“When [the doctors] took a proper look, they said I had scratched an entire layer off my whole eye,” she says. “The pain was intense. I wasn't able to do much else besides stay in bed with the curtains drawn for the five days that followed.”
Now, McHugh-Hill says her vision is OK, but her left eye still has a scar, is very sensitive, and she’s not able to wear contacts in it. “I was so, so lucky,” she said. “I could have lost my sight. I just didn’t realize how dangerous wearing contact lenses could be if your eyes are not moistened.”
First things first, don't freak: This is a pretty rare occurrence. “Of the 125 or so patients I see in a week, this may happen only three to four times a year,” Eric Q. Williams, O.D., of Katzen Eye Group, tells SELF.
But contact lens wearers should be aware this does happen, John Minardi, O.D., of Katzen Eye Group, tells SELF. “The reason that it sticks to the eye is that the lens dehydrates, or ‘dries out,’ and becomes much tighter,” he explains. “The tighter the lens, the less movement the lens will have to allow the exchange of the tear film beneath the lens. This can cause to cornea to swell slightly and make the lens fit tighter still.”
Jeffrey J. Walline, O.D., Ph.D., the associate dean for research at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, tells SELF that the risk is greater for people who nap or sleep in their contact lenses. “Sometimes when we sleep, the contact lenses lose water, causing them to fit tighter and stick to the cornea,” he says. “If you remove a contact lens in this situation, it can pull off the outer layer of the cornea and cause poor vision and extreme pain.”
Failure to clean your lenses properly can also contribute to the problem, Williams says. Protein deposits can accumulate on the surface of a lens if it’s not cleaned properly, which makes it sticky and more likely to be difficult to remove, he says.
However, if your contact lenses do dry out, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk of damaging your eyes during the removal process. Minardi recommends washing your hands and then rinsing your eye with saline or multi-purpose contact lens solution for several seconds. Then, close your eye and gently massage your eyelid. Repeat the process until your lens starts to move, then remove it the way you normally would.
Be patient: “It may take several minutes to rehydrate the lens to get it to move properly,” he says. Your eye will probably still feel pretty irritated afterward, which is why Minardi recommends regularly applying artificial tear drops afterward. However, “if the eye is painful or turns red after the lens is removed, there is the possibility of a corneal abrasion,” he says.
If you think your contacts have hurt one of your eyes somehow, Walline says you should stop wearing them and call your eye doctor immediately. Time is of the essence, since issues like a damaged cornea put your eye at a greater risk of infection. Ironically, your doctor may actually put a specialized contact lens in your eye as treatment. “The contact lens acts as a bandage for the area from which the outer layer of the cornea was removed,” Walline explains. “It helps decrease pain and promote healing because your eyelid cannot rub directly on the affected area.” With proper treatment as soon as possible, you likely won't have lasting eye issues.
Experts say if your eyes frequently dry out when you wear contact lenses, you can lower the risk of problems by moistening them with artificial tears (Williams says twice a day is usually good). Even if you don't often deal with dry eyes, it can help to carry artificial tears around just in case. And of course, Williams stresses that you should never sleep in your lenses, and you should always clean and dispose of them as directed.