Cosmetic contact lenses are fun, and they're popular among young people during the holidays.
But they are also dangerous and can cause severe eye damage, eye doctors said.
The health risks involved in wearing nonprescription decorative contact lenses include the possibility of scratching the eye's surface, or cornea. Such abrasions can lead to infections, which can cause ulcers to develop, eye doctors said.
If not treated quickly, the damage can be permanent, possibly leading to blindness in rare cases, they said. If the lens is not properly cleaned, bacteria can form on it and infect the eye, the doctors added.
Although a federal law passed in 2005 says the lenses, which can dramatically change an eye's color from brown or blue to red, purple or even catlike, cannot be sold without a prescription, it's relatively easy to buy one without having to have an eye care professional prescribe it, officials said. Under the law, all contact lenses, including ones that are solely intended for decorative or cosmetic use, are considered "medical devices" and require a prescription, examination and fitting by an eye care professional. Those who are found selling lenses illegally face a fine of up to $10,000.
But costume contact lenses can still be found at some flea markets, beauty supply stores, convenience stores and costume shops, as well as on various websites, said Dr. Brian Zachariah, the chief medical coordinator of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
"My understanding is that it's still pretty easy," Zachariah said. "I think that, regrettably, it's still possible for people to obtain these lenses."
Last month the state agency announced the seizure of 41 boxes of nonprescription contact lenses valued at $1,600 from a convenience store in central Illinois after receiving a tip from a school nurse who reported treating a student for an eye injury suffered from wearing contact lenses bought at that store.
Loyola University Medical Center optometrist Dr. Peter Russo said problems that result from wearing nonprescription lenses can also occur while wearing ones that have been prescribed. The difference, he said, is in the level of risk, which significantly increases when wearing a lens that was not properly treated for use by an eye care professional.
"These individuals buy these contact lenses, and they're not fitted properly, and they usually don't get the proper care regimen," Russo said. "It leads to improper use and the risk of complications."
Dr. Ruth Williams, president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said teenagers and young adults are at greater risk around this time of year of sustaining an eye injury from contact lenses because they are less likely to care for them in a way that would minimize their chances of getting an infection.
"It's a cool idea, and typically teenagers don't always know how to assess risk," Williams said. "I think making them aware of the risks, educating them, is really important."
Oftentimes, people are unaware of the potential risks regarding their eyes until a problem occurs, she said.
"We all know that we might have a heart attack. We all know we might get cancer someday. But nobody ever thinks about having an eye disease or an eye problem." Williams said. "Increasing awareness, I think, is really important."
There is no data about the number of people who suffered eye injuries because they wore decorative contact lenses. But Williams cited a 2010 U.S. Food and Drug Administration report that found more than 30,000 emergency room visits from January 2004 through December 2005 involving children and teens resulting from eye injuries caused by contact lenses.
According to a 2011 study conducted by researchers at Strasbourg University Hospital in France, those who wore nonprescription cosmetic lenses were less likely to get instruction on their proper use and care, which led to a much higher risk for contracting microbial keratitis, a condition in which the cornea becomes inflamed, causing intense pain and diminished vision.
If eye irritation does occur after wearing contact lenses, Williams and Russo both suggested seeking immediate care by a physician to avoid permanent damage.
"Unfortunately, if the infections or ulcers develop, they can get worse very, very quickly," Williams said. "In less than 24 hours they can become a serious infection."