Improper usage and care of contact lenses is behind majority of the roughly one million doctor appointments and emergency room visits Americans make annually because of eye infections, newly released data shows.

Figures from 2010 just released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 930,000 doctor visits and 58,000 ER treatments for microbial Keratitis, an infection of the cornea, the eye's transparent outer covering, brought about by bacteria, amoebae, fungi or a virus.

The majority of Keratitis infections are the result of improper uses of contact lenses such as wearing them overnight while sleeping, not properly cleaning lens cases or not replacing those cases on a regular basis, the CDC said.

"People who wear contact lenses overnight are more than 20 times more likely to get Keratitis," says CDC medical epidemiologist Jennifer Cope. "Wearing contacts and not taking care of them properly is the single biggest risk factor for Keratitis."

The infection can result in eye pain, blurred vision or redness.

There have even been severe cases resulting in blindness; earlier this year a woman in Taiwan who reportedly left her contact lenses in for 6 months developed an amoebic infection that cost her her sight.

An estimated 38 million Americans are contact lens wearers.

Treatment of Keratitis -- in three-quarters of cases that involves a prescription for antibiotics -- costs Americans $175 million annually, the CDC says.

"Contact lenses can provide many benefits, but they are not risk-free -- especially if contact lens wearers take shortcuts and don't take care of their contact lenses and supplies," Cope says.

There are precautions people should be aware of for preventing eye infections such as Keratitis, the CDC says.

  • Hands should be washed before touching the lenses.
  • Lenses should be removed before showering, swimming or going to bed.
  • Lenses should be cleaned and rinsed with disinfecting solution after every removal.
  • Contact lens solution should be replaced with fresh solution, not just topped up, when lenses are stored in a case.
  • Cases should be cleaned after every use.
  • Cases should be replaced every 3 months.

Keratitis can also have other causes not linked to infection, including physical injury to the cornea or exposure to chemicals, so a portion of the 1 million treatments in the CDC figures may have been for eye problems not resulting from infection, the agency acknowledges.

The data was included in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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