By Alison Hogan

Cat-eye contacts? Beware!

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The latest fashion fad could end up scarring young people permanently - and we're not talking tattoos this time. The latest look - particularly among the club-going set - is striped, polka dot and tiger eyes, achieved with funky, new, colored contact lenses. It's a stand-out look - but eye professionals are seeing more and more infections, and there's a chance blindness could result.

"Young people are trading and borrowing each other's fashion contact lenses. These are not corrective contacts, so anyone can wear any pair," says ophthalmologic surgeon Dr. Eric Mandel, surgical director at New York Lasik Vision Correction in Manhattan. Dr. Mandel, who is also author of "The Atlas of Cornea", a definitive textbook on the diseases of the cornea, says that sharing these hip new accessories can lead to "absolute disaster. People are not only sharing the lenses, they are also sharing corneal infections, conjunctivitis and viruses. And in doing so, are putting themselves and others at risk for catastrophic infections, which can lead to blindness."

And sharing lenses is only part of the problem. Kids wearing the lenses as fashion often don't understand contact lens care and maintenance. "They wear them, share them, take them off and put them on without cleaning or disinfecting them," explains Dr. Mandel. "Bacteria causes infections, and particles trapped under the lenses cause corneal abrasions. Worse, while wearing any contact lens, the wearer's cornea becomes desensitized to discomfort. A contact lens acts like a bandage. If the lens is worn too long, the wearer cannot really feel an abrasion until after the lens is removed - when it is often too late." And contact lens wearers must always 'work up' to wearing new lenses full-time - a necessity that is explained when you see an eye professional, but not when you purchase lenses elsewhere.

What's the solution? "If you must wear this latest fad, get the lenses from a reputable source - an optometrist or ophthalmologist, not your local drug store," Dr. Mandel warns. "Never, ever trade or share the lenses with friends, no matter how much you are perishing to have blue and pink striped eyes tonight. And clean and store the lenses appropriately, and wear them for only very limited periods of time - no more than an hour at first, working up to only two or three hours."

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