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Halloween Contact Lenses Can Be Scarier Than You Think

Contact lenses that give you the eyes of a tiger, zombie or vampire can add that extra scary touch to your Halloween costume, but they can also cause some scary problems. However, eye doctors are teaming up to warn parents and teens that purchasing decorative contact lenses without a prescription can create a serious problem for eye health.

In 2005, federal law classified all contact lenses as medical devices and restricted their distribution to only buy vanity contact lenses from an eye care professional or a seller who requires a prescription. Illegal sale of contacts can result in civil penalties up to $11,000 for each violation. However, a range of lenses that can transform your eyes into everything from soccer balls to biohazard warning signs can easily be found. 

"It is still very common to find these on sale in a convenience store or a beauty salon or find them online with a quick Google search," said Dr. Matthew Council, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the St. Louis University Eye Institute.

"It's fun to enhance your Halloween costume, but one night of fun is not worth losing your vision," said Mary Migneco, an ophthalmology instructor at Washington University School of Medicine.

The availability of decorative lenses — also called Plano or zero-powered lenses —leads some to treat the lenses as fashion accessories, experts say.

"People assume they are safe and that they don't need a doctor's visit to use them," Council said. "But even if you have perfect vision, they need to be properly measured and fitted."

Obtaining a prescription requires measuring the curvature, size, and dryness of the eyes. Patients can test different lenses and learn how to care for them.  "Everyone's eye is shaped differently," Council said. "There is no one-size-fits-all contact lens."

Contacts that are not properly fitted can scratch the eye. "When you have an abrasion on your eye, it's just like a cut on your hand. It's open to bacteria," Migneco said. "If it becomes infected and not treated in time, you can get scarring." Scarring can impair vision and even require a corneal transplant, which involves weeks of impaired vision and leaves a patient with a lifetime risk of complications.

Migneco also warned that lenses with an altered pupil, such as a cat-like slit, restricts light allowed into the eye — making it harder to see in the darkness of Halloween parties — and narrows a person's sight.  "You look pretty scary, but your peripheral vision is compromised," Migneco said.

Migneco said while the 2005 law has helped reduce problems associated with wearing decorative lenses, she still sees patients come into her office with infections for what she suspects are lenses obtained without a prescription. The patients don't want to reveal where they bought the lenses, she said, "but I can tell they didn't fit properly."