Healthy Choices

Memo to zombies and others: Halloween contact lenses can be a pain in the eye

Dave Montgomery, founder of a group of people who dress up as superheroes in Salt Lake City, shows part of his costume: a blood-red hockey mask and novelty contact lenses.
Dave Montgomery, founder of a group of people who dress up as superheroes in Salt Lake City, shows part of his costume: a blood-red hockey mask and novelty contact lenses. Los Angeles Times

Coveting that red-eyed zombie or Twilight-vampire look for Halloween? Or maybe a sexy cat’s eye to complete your costume?

Influenced by movies, celebrities and websites, many costume wearers seek out the finishing touch for Oct. 31: their eyeballs. But heading into Halloween weekend, eye doctors are warning about the dangers of popping in colored novelty contact lenses.

The risks from buying cheap, nonprescription contacts are many, ranging from redness, irritation and infections to serious damage that can result in cornea surgery and lost eyesight.

“We worry this time of year because there’s a real risk of losing vision. I’ve seen it quite often,” said Dr. Renee Yang, a Kaiser Permanente cornea specialist in Sacramento. She said many people, especially teens and young adults, “don’t realize it can lead to a bad infection, scarring and losing some of your vision.”

Ophthalmologists nationally are sounding the alarm, especially during Halloween. “It’s a big problem,” said Dr. Thomas Steinemann, a cornea specialist and a spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, based in Cleveland.

Steinemann, who treats 30 to 40 patients a day, says he’s seen many patients over the years who’ve developed scratched corneas and infections from wearing colored contact lenses, especially at Halloween time. One of his worst cases was a 14-year-old girl, who bought a pair at a corner store “to look cool” for a party. The next morning, she woke up with a “blinding eye infection” and was taken to the hospital. The infection led to a scarred cornea and impaired vision that required a cornea transplant.

“That’s a terrible price to pay,” said Steinemann, who said decorative contacts can be worn – but with an eye doctor’s prescription.

Colored contact lenses – even the novelty ones – are considered medical devices and cannot be sold without a prescription, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. On its website, it warns consumers: “Never buy contact lenses from a street vendor, a beauty supply store, flea market, novelty store or Halloween store.” If someone selling Halloween lenses doesn’t ask for a prescription and your eye doctor’s name and phone number, “they are breaking federal law and could be selling you illegal contact lenses,” according to the FDA.

Federal officials take illegal sales seriously. Last week, authorities announced they have seized about 30,000 pairs of illegal contact lenses, both regular and decorative. The seizures, over the past three years, are part of Operation Double Vision, a joint effort by the FDA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to stop the import of counterfeit contacts or unapproved decorative lenses.

In the past two weeks alone, officials have seized about 5,000 pairs of unapproved, illegal and decorative contact lenses, many of which tested positive for bacterial contamination, according to ICE officials. Most are coming from China, Singapore and Hong Kong and produced in “sloppy, backdoor rooms” where the manufacturing and packaging is exposed to contamination.

“Halloween is a major holiday in which criminal elements take the opportunity to exploit consumers without any regard for their health and safety,” said ICE official Bruce Foucart in a statement. He said investigations are continuing into “illegal trafficking of hazardous counterfeit contact lenses that can have long-term physical effects, lead to expensive medical bills and restrict individuals to intense rehabilitation programs.”

A decade after federal law began requiring a prescription to sell decorative contacts, sales proliferate, especially online.

Sites such as WickedEyez.com, Foureyez.com and Eyecandys.com sell dozens of Halloween contacts with fake red veins, cat’s-eye slits, orange flames, even skulls and iron crosses. Others come in stripes, patterns and vivid colors, such as neon pinks, green and yellows.

So-called circle lenses, which create the large, doe-eyed look popular in Japanese anime cartoons, are considered especially dangerous. Because they’re bigger and overlap the white part of the eye, they’re more likely to deprive the cornea of oxygen and increase the risk of infection, say ophthalmologists.

“It’s almost like suffocating your eye,” said Kaiser’s Dr. Yang.

Adding to the problem is that young people sometimes swap or re-use their costume contacts without following proper eye care, which creates a breeding ground for infections.

At Halloween costume stores such as Spirit, novelty contact lenses are sold online – prescription required – but not available on the shelves at physical stores.

“We’ve got eye decals, eyelashes, eye glitter, but nothing that goes in the eye,” said Lala Thomas, assistant store manager at Spirit’s West Sacramento outlet. “We have people come in asking for (decorative costume lenses), but we don’t carry them.”

Another problem with decorative contact lenses that aren’t FDA-approved is the dyes and dot-matrix printer inks that can leach onto the eyeball, said Steinemann. Recent studies have shown that chlorine, iron and other materials can chip and flake onto the eye’s surface.

Not everyone is aware of the dangers.

Maria Hunt, shopping with her grandchildren and husband at the West Sacramento Spirit store, said she’s planning to buy some gray-colored contact lenses for her adult daughter, who has entered a Halloween costume contest dressed up as Maleficient, the evil sorceress in Sleeping Beauty.

Hunt, a professional makeup artist, hadn’t heard about the warnings. “If it’s only for one night, she can always take them off after a few hours. I don’t think a one-time use is going to cause a problem.”

For more on Halloween or decorative contact lenses, go to the American Academy of Opthalmology website: GetEyeSmart.org. California consumers who have experienced injury or illness with decorative contact lenses should contact their health care provider or call the state Department of Public Health’s hotline at 800-495-3232.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

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