Halloween costume contacts can make the wearer a party hit, but at the price of infections or corneal damage.
Halloween costume contacts can make the wearer a party hit, but at the price of infections or corneal damage.
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It’s frightening how Halloween costume contact lenses can infect, damage eyes

By: Ruth Cummins

If you want to rock the perfect monster eyes on Halloween, think twice before popping in costume contact lenses that wreak infections or damages scarier than a zombie apocalypse.

Portrait of Dr. Kimberly Crowder

“Costume contact lenses are dangerous because they are not regulated and can be purchased and used by patients who are not under the care of an eye doctor,” said Dr. Kimberly Crowder, professor and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“I have personally seen multiple cases of cornea abrasions and infections from improper use of these lenses. Infections from these lenses can cause permanent vision loss,” she said.

First and foremost, contact lenses are medical devices that require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Secondly, it’s illegal to sell any contact lenses in the United States without a valid prescription from an eye care professional.

That doesn’t stop poorly regulated businesses from selling costume contact lenses.

Portrait of Dr. Roya Attar

“When some people are planning the perfect Halloween costume, they believe that last detail, such as costume contact lenses, can bring that costume together,” said Dr. Roya Attar, an assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and director of Optometric Services. Attar became UMMC’s first-ever optometrist in 2018.

While most people cherish their sight as the most valuable of their senses, Attar said, some are very willing to put their eyes in jeopardy. “These lenses are sold anywhere, from gas stations to very odd places where you shouldn’t be purchasing anything that you’re going to put in your eyes,” she said.

Colored contacts, circle lenses, sclera contacts and other costume contacts are sometimes advertised as if they are toys, but non-prescription lenses can cut, scratch and infect your eyes if they aren’t a perfect fit, the American Academy of Ophthalmology advises. They can cause corneal ulcers, potentially blinding infections such as keratitis, and deprive the eyes of oxygen because the paints and pigments used in making their designs cause the lenses to be thicker and less breathable.

The colors and paint can create an uneven texture on the lenses that can scratch the front of the eyes. Costume contacts can contain chlorine, iron or other toxic substances from colorants or tints used to make patterns such as cat eyes or zombie eyes.

In the worst cases of damage or infection, blindness results, or surgery can be required, including a corneal transplant.

It’s important to remember that if you purchase costume contact lenses that aren’t FDA-approved, or from a dealer that is not regulated by the FDA, you can’t be sure of what you’re getting.  Costume contact lenses bought online, in beauty parlors, or otherwise over the counter might not be clean, might not be the size you think you are getting, and might be counterfeit lenses that are repackaged and further contaminated with chemicals or germs.

Costume contacts are extremely uncomfortable, Attar said. “Sometimes, you hear that those high heels look good, but they cause you pain,” she said. “When it comes to your eyes, it’s not worth it to endure the pain and possible blinding side effects.”

When the eyes are deprived of oxygen by costume contacts, it can cause a painful red ring around the eye within an hour, Attar said. “Especially if you get costume reptile eyes, the chemicals used to paint the lenses are very toxic,” she said.

“What’s even more scary is that people wear them one year and don’t have problems, and then use the very same contacts the next year,” she said.

Those who want a scary look for Halloween have other options that can make them a hit at their party, Attar said. “If you want a colored contact for your outfit, there are approved lenses for that,” she said. “At UMMC’s ophthalmic shop, we have colors ranging from gray to green to purple. If you’d like to purchase those contacts, you will need to see your eye professional and be evaluated and fitted first. They also are sold only with an approved prescription from an eye care professional.”

If someone realizes or suspects that they’ve damaged their eyes with colored contacts, “take out the contact lenses, most importantly,” Attar advises. “If there are any signs of initial discomfort, go to the ER or an urgent care clinic.”

Attar remembers past patients who had unfortunate experiences with costume contacts and who very well could have lost all or part of their sight.

“I had a patient who told me, ‘I put this contact lens in that I bought at a random gas station, and next thing I know I have a red ring,’” Attar said.

“The person was smart enough to take them out because they couldn’t tolerate the pain, but not everyone will do that,” she said.

To make an appointment for an annual eye exam, including fittings for contact lenses and eyeglasses, call the UMMC Optical Suite at 601-984-5037. The Suite includes a full-service optical shop with affordable and designer frames and a wide variety of contact lenses, including colored lenses.