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Asking for a friend

What if I Never Change My Disposable Contact Lenses?

You could lose a damn eye. Or it could just get really itchy.

Patia Braithwaite

Patia Braithwaite

Image: Gillian Vann / Stocksy

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.

The scenario: Your friend wears one-day disposable contacts because, according the American Optometric Association (AOA), they are the healthiest of all contact lenses. Your friend is smart. He or she can, theoretically take them out and discard them without worrying about germs and infection. Your friend quickly discovered, however, the safest contact lens option is also the most expensive. One-day disposable lenses clock in at about $480-720 dollars a year, so your frugal friend decided to stretch 'one-day' disposables for a few days. Then a few days became a few weeks. Now your friend has been wearing them for a month straight. Whenever you express concern, your friend mumbles something incoherent about big pharma, big vision, and the futility of believing medical professionals. Is your friend going to go blind?

The issue: One-day disposable contact lenses are considered the healthiest lens option because proteins, calcium, and other goodies found in your tears can build up in contacts over time and make you more prone to infection. If you dispose of your contacts after one use, you circumvent this buildup and reduce risk of infection. Though these contacts are healthier when worn as prescribed, they are made of different—less breathable—material than daily wear or extended wear lenses. They are simply not meant to be reused or worn for extended periods of time. Andrea Thau, president of the American Optometric Association explains, "The cornea receives its oxygen supply by way of the tears and limbal blood vessels. Wearing contact lenses creates a barrier for oxygen, which is why it is essential that a lens be fitted properly to ensure adequate oxygen supply." If you wear one-day contacts as if they are extended wear, you may be depriving your eyes of oxygen.

What's the worst that could happen? Barry Kay, optometrist and owner of Hollywood Eyes, says if you attempt to wear one-day disposable contacts beyond the prescribed time, they will quickly become less comfortable  as your body receives signals that the lens is a foreign intruder. Kay says, "It's as if the eye thinks it's getting infected, and it sends in killer cells to fight [the lens]." Kay adds, "these cells can easily cause damage to the cornea as the contact stays on the eye. This leads to corneal ulceration and permanent scarring. If this occurs in the center of the cornea there will be permanent loss of vision." While Kay indicates that central scarring is rare, he does say that he sees about one case per year in his office. Even with these risks, the American Optometric Association estimates 57 percent of contact lens-wears leave their lenses on longer than they should. The pervasiveness of the abuse, however, doesn't minimize the risk. As an absolute worst case scenario, Kay mentions the potential loss of an eye.

What will probably happen: Unfortunately for your friend, misusing disposable contact lenses will inevitably do damage. While only 1 in 500 people who get eye infections from their contacts go blind (even fewer will lose an eye), The CDC reports that 20 percent of contact-lens-related infections result in corneal scarring, decreased vision, and the need for a corneal transplant. "If you use the one-day [lenses] for two or three days, you still have the potential to trigger the same response," Kay says. "It's like Russian roulette. If you continually abuse [lenses] it's not a question of if, but a question of when, you will have the most serious complications."

What should you do? CHANGE YOUR CONTACTS RIGHT NOW. I mean, tell your friend to. Almost every relevant governing body, including the CDC and FDA, states that contacts are only safe when proper hygiene is exercised. Refusing to change lenses in a timely manner, sleeping in them and even failing to change the lens case can all result in serious infections. Thau says, "You only have one set of eyes, and it is foolhardy to risk vision loss by abusing your contact lenses." Kay puts it more bluntly when he says, "It's like driving your car 70 miles an hour in your neighborhood every day.  Eventually, in that 30 mph zone where you are speeding, you are going to hit something or someone." The risk isn't worth the money you might save.