By Anna Hodgekiss

PUBLISHED:17:05 EST, 20  August 2012| UPDATED:17:05 EST, 20 August 2012

As a contact lens wearer, Jennie Hurst knew  the importance of good hygiene to prevent eye infections.

‘I was meticulous about removing my lenses  before bed and making sure I did so with clean hands,’ says the 28-year-old from  Southampton.

‘I wore monthlies — where the lenses are  removed each night and replaced once a month — but I was so conscious of getting  an infection that I replaced them every two weeks.

And I always cleaned them with  contact lens  cleaning solution, unlike some of my friends who’d run  their lenses under the  tap or even moisten them with saliva.’

Despite this, Jennie, who works as an  environmental co-ordinator, is now blind  in her left eye — the result of a  vicious infection.

The cause?

Swimming while wearing her contact lenses,  something she never realised put her at risk.

Jennie is one of a growing number of people — the majority of them young — suffering potentially devastating eye infections  due to a lack of  knowledge of the risks of contact lenses, say  experts.

In her case the problem is acanthamoeba  keratitis, caused by an amoeba — a parasite found in almost all soil, fresh  water and sea water.

It thrives where limescale and bacteria are  present, but contact lens wearers are at highest risk if they clean their lenses  or lens cases in tap water, or if they swim, shower or bathe while wearing their  lenses.

This means the parasite can become trapped  between the lens and the eye, allowing it to burrow into the eyeball.

Indeed, Jennie’s problems began after a quick  swim in a hotel pool while on a break in the West Country last  summer.

‘The irony is that I don’t even like swimming — I only did a few laps,’ says Jennie, who had worn contact lenses for five  years at that point.

‘I had no idea of the dangers of swimming in  lenses — my biggest concern was simply losing a lens in the pool.

‘I remember getting some water in my eye, but  thought nothing of it.

'I felt so guilty - if I'd known I'd have whipped them out in seconds and worn my glasses instead,' said Jennie‘I felt so guilty – if I’d known I’d have whipped them  out in seconds and worn my glasses instead,’ said Jennie

‘Then, three days later, I noticed my left  eye was very sensitive to light and felt like it had a chemical irritation.

‘It was a bit red but there wasn’t any  discharge like a normal eye infection — I’d had one of those years before,  although not from contact lenses.

‘Then, over the next day, the most  excruciating pain kicked in, so I drove myself to hospital.’

There, doctors referred her to the specialist  eye casualty at Southampton General Hospital, where she was given eye drops and  told to return a week later.

‘With no improvement, the doctors explained  they’d have to take a scrape of the surface of my eye to see if there was an  infection.

‘They also asked if I’d done anything unusual  and I said swimming. They said this was the most likely cause, explaining  contact lens wearers should never do that with their lenses in.

‘I felt so guilty — if I’d known I’d have  whipped them out in seconds and worn my glasses instead.’

The initial scrape of her eye revealed she  had acanthamoeba keratitis and this began six months off work for Jennie, who by  this point was ‘almost blind’ in that eye.

‘I had my first operation that day — the top  layers of my eye were scraped off, and I then administered half hourly drops day  and night.

‘The drops, which contained strong chemicals,  were really painful. And when you’re having them so often you just don’t sleep.

‘I spent the majority of time in a dark room — even the light on my phone screen was too bright to look at.

It's estimated that 3.7 million Britons wear contact lensesIt’s estimated that 3.7 million Britons wear contact  lenses

‘I was in hospital three times in six months  (about two weeks in total) and then had to move in with my parents, as I  couldn’t do anything for myself.

‘On the rare occasions I did leave the house,  I had to literally follow my Dad’s footsteps because I couldn’t see.’

Even light hitting the good eye would make  her bad eye painful, and her vision was blurred due to watery  eyes.

It’s estimated that  3.7 million Britons  wear contact lenses.

Though rare, acanthamoeba keratitis is an  extremely painful, sight-threatening condition.

The organism eats the cornea, the  transparent cover of the eye, says Parwez Hossain, the consultant  ophthalmologist at Southampton General Hospital’s eye unit who treated Jennie.

Left to burrow, the amoeba can penetrate  through the eyeball, causing total vision loss within weeks.

‘The condition is pure torture — the amoeba  is attacking the nerves of the cornea — and treatment itself is very painful.

‘It can involve a year of regular and toxic  eye drops,’ says Mr Hossain.

‘Jennie has been particularly unlucky — hers  is one of the most severe cases I’ve seen.

‘The problem is that people have no idea of  the risks of swimming or showering while wearing lenses.’

What’s more, cases are on the rise.

‘At Southampton we have noticed an increase,  as have other eye units around the country, perhaps due to a lack of awareness  of contact lens hygiene,’ says Mr Hossain.

A letter from doctors at Bristol Eye Hospital  to the BMJ last year stated that many acanthamoeba keratitis patients had been  washing lenses in tap water and showering or swimming wearing them.

And there are many more common eye infections  linked to poor lens hygiene that can have similarly devastating results.

‘Psuedomonas bacteria cause the most common  type of infection in contact lens wearers,’ adds Mr Hossain.

‘It’s another bug that lives in water and  can destroy your sight within 24-36 hours.

‘A common symptom is green pus and pain,  discomfort and light sensitivity after only a few hours.

‘It’s often mistaken for conjunctivitis but,  if you have these symptoms, it’s vital to seek medical help, as after two or  three days, the cornea may perforate.’

The problem generally occurs with poor  hygiene.

‘Even daily disposables are risky if your  hands aren’t clean,’ says Mr Hossain.

‘You need to wash hands with soap and water  to get rid of bacteria, then dry them on a clean towel.

‘And never run lenses under a tap, as  parasites could get onto your lens and into your eye.’

Not changing contact lenses when you’re  supposed to is another problem.

But by far the biggest culprit for infections  is not replacing your lens case every month.

Over time, cracks in the case can form in  which micro-organisms can thrive.

Mr Hossain warns that young people are  leaving themselves particularly vulnerable to infections.

‘They tend to be quite relaxed when it comes  to the hygiene standards required for wearing contact lenses and that’s  reflected in the number of people under 50 being treated for severe cases of  corneal infection, with an average age of 30.

‘This, coupled with an explosion of cheap  online stores, means the consequences can be grim,’ he explains.

‘An audit we performed at Southampton  discovered a number of patients presenting to eye casualty had bought  online.’

Keith Tempany, of the British Contact Lens  Association, agrees.

‘There is little policing of buying lenses on  the internet.

‘Australian research has found you’re five  times more likely to get an infection buying this way, as there are fewer  reminders about good lens hygiene.

‘When you have a check-up at the opticians  they can assess the health of your eyes, ensure you’re changing the case  regularly and that you have the right type of lens for your  lifestyle.

‘For example, if you do a lot of water sports  then orthokeratology is a good option.

‘This is where lenses are worn at night and  gently re-shape the cornea to correct myopia (shortsight).’

For Jennie, such advice is too late.

In the past year she has undergone six  operations to try to remove the parasite — and is still having treatment to try  to regain some vision in the damaged eye.

She is gradually adjusting to her limited  sight.

‘I misjudge slopes and uneven pavements are a  nightmare.

‘In crowds I’ve accepted I’ll walk into  people, as I just don’t see them.

‘The good news is I’m driving again so life  is slowly returning to normal.

‘But I consider myself lucky that only one  eye was affected.

‘I’d urge contact lens wearers to be  extremely careful — I never imagined this could happen from a quick  swim.’

Jennie  is fundraising for research into eye conditions: Justgiving.com/see-the-light.  For contact lens advice visit www.bcla.org.uk.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2191190/I-swam-contact-lenses–Im-blind-eye.html#ixzz249B1THOV