Contact lenses that lack FDA approval, generally the cheapest brands, can be made of impermeable materials. That means oxygen cannot reach the cornea, and someone who wears such lenses is literally suffocating the surface of the eye, causing it to become swollen and cloudy, Murchison said. Some cheap varieties also contain harmful substances such as lead, a neurotoxin, and chlorine, which can cause irritation. Others may be stamped with a design that can irritate the inside of the eyelid, she said.
Contacts that have been reviewed by the FDA, on the other hand, still can cause vision problems if sold without a prescription, meaning that they have not been fitted to the wearer's eyes. They can be too tight or too loose, leading to rubbing, inflammation, and infection, Murchison said.
The Masquerade store on Columbus Boulevard sells an FDA-approved variety of lenses without a prescription for $49.99, but requires buyers to sign two forms: one acknowledging they bought the lenses without a prescription, the other indicating they have read a lengthy list of precautions. Among them: Wash hands before inserting the lenses, and use lens disinfectant recommended by an "eye care professional."
"Never had one complaint," said general manager Paul Johnston. "I feel as if the customer is informed. It's something they accept."
Several stores sell lenses without prescriptions, as well, at prices ranging from $20 to $40, including one with a window advertisement for "FDA-Approved Theatrical Contacts." A store employee declined to comment.
Some contact-lens merchants are capitalizing on the popularity of the HBO series "Game of Thrones," selling vivid blue lenses that allow the wearer to look like the mysterious White Walkers.
Murchison said she had watched one episode. As a physician, her first reaction was to be alarmed by all the violence. Then she thought of the potential for eye injury from ill-fitting cosmetic contacts.
Her advice: Get your eyes measured with a proper exam, and buy a pair that are approved by the FDA.
"Your vision is worth the price of a prescription," she said.
Or pick a different costume, instead.
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