Eye Fungus Strikes Contact Lens Wearers

April 5, 2005 — -- Allison Bregman-Rodriguez had felt pain before, but never this intense.

"It felt like lightning struck my eye," she said. "It was really painful. My eye was red and swollen."

As it turned out, Bregman-Rodriguez had an eye infection caused by fungus called fusarium, which is commonly found in plant material and soil in tropical and subtropical areas. Cases are on the rise in the United States and Asia, striking healthy people who wear soft contact lenses.

This fungal infection doesn't spread the way conjunctivitis does, said Arthur Epstein, an optometrist who chairs the contact lens and cornea section of the American Optometric Association.

"It's not contagious in a conventional way, so it doesn't spread like wildfire, like a highly conventional virus would," he said. "This fungus is actually everywhere. We are subjected to these spores constantly. Healthy people can usually fend against them. That's why we rarely encounter the fungus. But now we're seeing healthy people come down with the disease. That has worried us."

The fungus grows within the eye's cornea. Doctors who prescribe antibiotics for their patients to treat eye symptoms without first culturing the eye to see whether something is there could be putting their patients at risk because the fungal infection could go untreated.

"What's tricky about this fungus is that the symptoms are almost the same as a normal bacterial infection in the eye," Epstein said.

The symptoms of the fungal infection include pain, redness in eye, light sensitivity, blurred vision, discharge and lesions. The fungus can cause permanent eye damage, even blindness.

Bregman-Rodriguez was treated in time, so she won't lose her sight, but her eyes have developed permanent scarring. She says she will never wear contact lenses again.

"I'm just lucky that I'm able to see," she said.

Precautions to Take

For contact lens wearers:

Wash hands before touching lenses.

Keep lens case clean by emptying it, washing it out, and air-drying it between uses.

Make sure your cleaning and rinsing solutions are fresh.

Replace contacts on time -- don't try to stretch another week out of them.

Throw your contact case away every three months.

Visit your doctor each year to make sure your contacts are fitted properly.

If you have an eye problem, see your doctor right away.

If you don't wear contact lenses:

Wash your hands and face regularly.

Never touch your eyes without washing your hands first.

If you have an eye problem, see your doctor right away.