Color Contacts Can Carry Risks

"Don't it make my brown eyes blue?" crooned Crystal Gayle of unrequited love. While she may not have meant it literally, nowadays with the help of cosmetic contact lenses, brown-eyed girls can brandish baby-blues if they so choose. But most may be unaware of the potentially costly consequences.

Cosmetic contacts have quickly become the latest teenage fad. Teens we spoke with in Ohio, New York and Maryland say colored lenses are a kick, whether you need glasses or not. People who have no need for correcting their vision are still donning these lenses, simply for cosmetic purposes.

"Right now they're green," 15-year-old Alaina, whose real eye color is brown, told ABCNEWS' Arnold Diaz. "But I also have a honey color that makes them yellow...depending on what outfit I'm wearing."

Sales of contact lenses are up 20 percent, and manufacturers are targeting the youth market with wild colors and patterns like zebra, ice fire, knockouts, and red hots.

But what began as a fashion fad is also a potential health hazard. Even cosmetic lenses that have no vision correction in them have to be fitted by an eye doctor. That's the law. But many teens are buying bootleg colored lenses without a prescription from often unlicensed vendors, and taking other risks.

"Did you know that the kids are selling these contact lenses out of their locker at high school?" asks Dr. Thomas Steineman, director of the eye clinic at Cleveland's Metro Health Medical Center in Ohio. "Did you know that kids are dyeing contact lenses in vegetable dyes found in things like Kool-Aid? Did you know that kids are sharing lenses with their friends? That's really dangerous."

No Less Risky

All contact lenses carry the potential for serious complications. However, some people carry the belief that because colored lenses do not correct vision and are purely cosmetic, they are not as risky to wear without a prescription.

"The fallacy of that logic is that they are made of some of the same materials and they fit on the cornea as a foreign body just like any other contact lens," explains Dr. Gary Foulks, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Proper fit and care, which eye care professionals guarantee, can reduce the risk of painful complications. "If [a lens] is too tight, it can squeeze and cause scratches. If it's too loose, it'll roll around and usually falls out," says Dr. Susan Taub, associate professor of ophthalmology at the Northwestern University School of Medicine.

The most serious concern is the risk of infection. "There are bacteria that have a predilection for the eye and can really ravage the eye," says Taub. "They can actually bore a hole in the eye and blind [it]."

Robyn Rouse is one of at least 1,500 people who wound up in emergency rooms last year as a result of contact lens problems. She bought colored lenses without a prescription at a corner grocery store in Cleveland. The 15-year-old says she wore them for one night, took them out and went to sleep.

"The next morning I woke up, my eye was closed and I couldn't see out of it," she says.

Rouse was rushed to the hospital with a severe bacterial infection in her eye. "Had she not come promptly, I have no doubt that she would have lost the eye," says Steineman.

The damage was so bad, Steineman had to perform a corneal transplant. And even now after almost a year of treatment, her vision is still not completely restored.

"[Infections] are serious ramifications and we see them," says Taub. "Particular[ly] in people who are not compliant with cleaning their lenses properly. Then you think about someone who just walks into a beauty salon and picks up a pair of contacts and isn't taught how to put them in or take them out and isn't sure if they fit, the statistical likelihood of something going wrong just grows."

Bootleg Contacts

Despite the considerable risk of serious infection and the fact that the law requires a prescription for colored lenses, we found it's still easy to buy bootleg contacts.

To find out how easy and inexpensive it is for teens to buy these lenses without a physician's input, watch 20/20's hidden camera investigation by clicking on the image at the top of this report.

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