Halloween Hazard: The Hidden Dangers of Buying Colored Contact Lenses Without a Prescription

It started as an impulsive buy from a souvenir shop, but 10 hours after she first put in a pair of colored contact lenses, Laura Butler of Parkersburg, W.Va., had "extreme pain in both eyes," she said. "Because I had not been properly fitted by an eye care professional, the lenses stuck to my eye like a suction cup."

Laura Butler
Laura Butler wore over-the-counter contact lenses for just 10 hours. She ended up with a severe eye infection, a scar on her cornea and damaged vision.

Halloween is a popular time for people to use colored contact lenses to enhance their costumes. From blood-drenched vampire eyes to glow-in-the-dark lizard lenses, costume contacts can certainly add a spooky, eye-popping touch. But colored contact lenses are popular year-round, not just at Halloween.

But few know the risks associated with these lenses. "Most people believe that decorative lenses do not require the same level of care or consideration as a standard contact lens because they can be purchased over-the-counter or on the Internet," says Thomas Steinemann, MD, professor of ophthalmology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "This is far from the truth."

In fact, it is illegal to sell colored contact lenses without a prescription in the United States. All contact lenses are medical devices that require a prescription and proper fitting by an eye-care professional. Retailers that sell contacts without a prescription are breaking the law, and may be fined $11,000 per violation. "Many of the lenses found online or in beauty salons, novelty shops or in pop-up Halloween stores are not FDA-approved and are being sold illegally," Dr. Steinemann said.

Never buy colored contact lenses from a retailer that does not ask for a prescription. There is no such thing as a "one size fits all" contact lens. Lenses that are not properly fitted may scratch the eye or cause blood vessels to grow into the cornea. Even if you have perfect vision, you need to get an eye exam and a prescription from an eye-care professional in order to wear any kind of contact lens. In Butler's case, the lenses caused an infection and left her with a corneal abrasion. "I was in severe pain and on medication for four weeks, and couldn't see well enough to drive for eight weeks," she said. "I now live with a corneal scar, vision damage and a drooping eyelid."

To safely wear costume contact lenses for Halloween or any time of year, follow these guidelines:

  • Get an eye exam from a licensed eye care professional such as an ophthalmologist — an eye medical doctor — who will measure each eye and talk to you about proper contact lens care.
  • Obtain a valid prescription that includes the brand name, lens measurements, and expiration date.
  • Purchase the colored contact lenses from an eye product retailer who asks for a prescription.
  • Follow the contact lens care directions for cleaning, disinfecting, and wearing the lenses.
  • Never share contact lenses with another person.
  • Get follow up exams with your eye care provider.

If you notice redness, swelling, excessive discharge, pain or discomfort from wearing contact lenses, remove the lenses and seek immediate medical attention from an ophthalmologist.

Related resources:

Learn more by listening to the Academy's audio PSA in English (mp3 audio) and Spanish (mp3 audio).

Learn how to properly care for contact lenses.

Learn about the members of the eye-care team.

Consumer warning about the improper use of colored contact lenses, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Are the colored lenses you are considering buying approved by the FDA?

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