If you wear contact lenses, then you've been told before (many times, probably) that you should never sleep in them. Unfortunately for Today show co-anchor Craig Melvin, it took a serious health scare for him to take that advice seriously.
“I was one of those people that did not listen to their ophthalmologist when they would tell them repeatedly that they should not sleep in their contact lenses,” Melvin told People. The 39-year-old said he used rewetting drops whenever his eyes felt dry, and didn't think anything of it. “I never had any problems," he said. "I just thought maybe my eyes were different."
Melvin's years of good luck ran out this August when his left eye became unusually red. He chocked it up to allergies, but visited a physician after a couple of days at his colleagues' insistence. When the doctor told Melvin he had a corneal ulcer, an open sore on the surface of the eye's clear outer tissue, he was shocked.
“The doctor said if it had gone untreated for several weeks it could have be irreparable,” the dad of two revealed. The off-putting way his eye doctor described the gross habit—comparing it to wearing the same pair of underwear every single day—really brought the message home. "That was all I needed to hear," he said.
Signs of a corneal ulcer include redness, pain, irritation, itchiness, tears or discharge, light sensitivity, blurred vision, and a small white patch on the eye's surface.
These sores are usually caused by an infection, but they can also result from the presence of a foreign body in the eye, dry eye, severe allergic eye disease, a corneal abrasion, and—yep—wearing your contacts to bed.
As Andrea Thau, O.D., president of the American Optometric Association, previously told SELF, sleeping with your contacts in adds another barrier (in addition to your eye lid) that blocks oxygen from getting to the cornea. An already-limited air flow, exacerbated by your contacts being left in, can cause swelling and small tears in the cornea that leave it vulnerable.
Superficial corneal ulcers will cause keratitis, a condition in which the eye becomes inflamed.
Keratitis is characterized by irritation, pain, redness, tearing, blurred vision, and light sensitivity. But when an infectious microorganism (like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites) makes its way into one of those little surface cracks in the cornea, things can go from extremely uncomfortable to extremely dangerous. "If an infection develops, it can cause a corneal ulcer," Dr. Thau said. "It starts to get eaten away or eroded by microorganisms."
Fortunately, a corneal ulcer can usually be addressed by treating the infection with prescription eyedrops.
Left untreated, though, it can lead to permanent damage to the eye like Melvin's doctor described, including corneal scarring, impaired vision, and, in rare cases, loss of the eye altogether.
If you accidentally fall asleep with your contacts still in, take them out first thing in the morning.
You can use contact solution to help make removing them easier, and wear your glasses afterwards to let your eyes breathe a little, as SELF previously reported. If you have trouble removing your lenses and/or experience any of the symptoms listed above, give your eye doctor a call. But the easiest way to avoid an issue is to spend that extra minute before bed to protect your eyeballs.
Melvin knows how fortunate he is that the worst consequence he faced was having to wear his glasses on-air for the first time in his broadcast career. And as spiffy as they may have looked, he hopes contact-wearers will learn from his mistake. “Don’t be an idiot like me," he said. "Three words: Take them out."