Meet Julian Hamlin, a 23-year-old from Florence, South Carolina, who went blind in his left eye after wearing color contacts he bought at a gas station.
Hamlin, who currently works as an administrative assistant and a receptionist, says he bought the pair for $15 without a prescription back in 2010. Local gas stations and beauty stores sold these cheap color contacts, and many teens in his area would buy them, he told BuzzFeed Life in an interview. Hamlin wore the lenses almost every day and took proper precautions to disinfect and replace them each month. “There were no warnings or instructions about the risks,” he says.
After wearing the same brand of contact lenses for about two years, he woke up in March 2012 with a severe infection.
“It was so out the blue. … I just woke up and my eye felt weird, so I went to the doctor, but he thought it was pinkeye,” says Hamlin. Three days later, he was in the hospital with blindness in his left eye due to a severe corneal ulcer (a sore in the lining of the eye due to an infection). Hamlin later developed glaucoma from increased eye pressure, which would require a permanent stent (pictured above, right) to help drain fluid from his eye.
“It’s been a long, painful journey,” Hamlin says of the 15 surgeries, including seven corneal transplants, he has needed since 2012.
In a two-year span, Hamlin says, his medical expenses have topped $250,000, although there has been little improvement in his vision. “My left eye is completely blurry; it’s been a big transition,” says Hamlin, who has also suffered unemployment and emotional pain due to his injuries. “I’ve had to miss so many days of work, and I can’t lift anything over 25 pounds because it increases the pressure in my eyes, so I’m limited in my jobs,” he says.
Hamlin is often required to wear an eye patch or sunglasses because of the increased sensitivity in his eyes. “It’s very hard to wear an eyepatch in public. … It took my family three months to get me out of the house, because people can be so cruel and disrespectful about it,” says Hamlin.
“Please do not wear these on Halloween — it might be more difficult and expensive to get a prescription, but a $10 pair isn’t worth the risk and pain,” Hamlin says.
Hamlin is currently trying to control his glaucoma and make sure he is healthy so his most recent corneal transplant takes well. His hope is to recover enough minimal vision in his left eye so that he can be fitted for corrective glasses which can help balance his sight as best possible.
It’s actually illegal to sell contact lenses — even novelty ones — without a prescription in the U.S., since they’re considered medical devices.
“There is no difference between corrective and costume lenses — they all need to be fitted to your eye by a qualified eye care professional who can write a prescription,” Thomas Steinemann, M.D., clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and professor of ophthalmology at Case Western Reserve, tells BuzzFeed Life. If contact lenses don’t fit the shape of the eye properly, Steinemann says, they can cause discomfort, pain, and scratching.
Plus, most cheap novelty contacts you see in stores aren’t actually FDA-approved.
“Many of these illegal lenses are cheaply made overseas from older materials and they are not FDA-approved for sale in the United States,” Steinemann says. Researchers have found increased levels of chlorine in costume contacts, which can be very dangerous for the eyes. Additionally, Steinemann says, the toxic dyes and paints used to tint contact lenses can leak out into the eye if it’s a poorer-quality lens.
Cheap lenses are also more likely trap germs and cause scratching, which can lead to blinding infections.
Studies have shown these lenses don’t allow as much oxygen through for the eye to breathe properly, which is very important for corneal health, Steinemann says.
“The pigment in the lens makes the surface rougher so it’s much easier for bacteria, fungi, and amoebas to bind and cause a blinding infection,” he says. Likewise, the rough surface can cause abrasions, especially if the lens isn’t fitted to your eye, and once part of the cornea is lost, this can very easily cause permanent damage.
So if you do plan on wearing costume contacts this Halloween, the American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests the following safety guidelines:
• Only buy decorative contact lenses from retailers who require a prescription and sell FDA-approved products.
• Get a valid prescription from a doctor. Even those with perfect vision need to get examined and fitted for the right size contacts by an eye health professional.
• Redness, swelling, excessive discharge, pain, or discomfort can signal eye infection. If you have any these symptoms, see your doctor immediately.
And no matter what, you should always treat your contact lenses with extra care.
“No matter what, you need to be responsible enough to wear contact lenses,” Steinemann says. This means having excellent hygiene when handling your lenses, making sure to clean and disinfect everything properly, and following the replacement instructions perfectly, Steinemann says.
“You want to have a fun Halloween, not end up in the ER and possibly blinded for life.”
To see pictures of Hamlin and his infected eye, please visit Buzzfeed.com.