FORT BENNING, Ga. (June 13, 2012) -- Like any piece of equipment or technology, contact lenses must be used correctly to function at their best. Misuse can lead to a host of vision trouble -- a serious issue when it comes to a Soldier's mission capability.

"Contact lenses are safely used everyday by millions, (but) they do carry a risk of eye infection," said Dr. (Capt.) Steven Gutierrez, an optometrist with the Winder Eye Clinic on post. "Infections can be sight-threatening and lead to permanent vision loss if not treated promptly. Many people, in my experience, are willing to risk possible complications in return for the convenience of sleeping in the lenses."

"When I get somebody with an eye infection, I'll ask, 'How long have you been sleeping in contacts?'" said Dr. Daniel Gruver, a Martin Army Community Hospital optometrist who has been fitting lenses for nearly two decades.

Because of the risk of infection, contacts are not allowed in the field or downrange, but Soldiers need to know how to use them properly even in garrison to mitigate the risk of temporary or permanent damage, Gutierrez said.

"Listen to your eye-care provider," he said. "Perhaps one of the biggest offenders when I ask patients is the hygiene regarding their contact lens cases. These should be cleaned and rinsed frequently. A hot water rinse followed by air drying or rinsing the case with fresh solution and leaving it to air dry is recommended. The cases themselves should be replaced every three to six months because 40 to 60 percent of the contact lens cases are contaminated and a breeding ground for bacteria."

Besides poor hygiene and sleeping in lenses, another factor leading to infection is overwearing the contacts. Though it depends on the type, most lenses need to be thrown away every two weeks, Gruver said.

"I tell everybody (to throw them away) the first and 15th," he said. "That's easy to remember. You get a schedule down."

As a precaution, Gutierrez suggested having two backup pairs of glasses with current prescriptions in case an infection occurs. As the eye heals, it's often necessary to avoid contact use for several weeks. He warned against using cosmetic lenses for costume purposes, as they may damage the eye permanently.

"Remove your contacts and see your eye care provider if any of the following occur: redness, pain, increased light sensitivity, blurred vision, discharge or swelling," he said. "Patients generally don't think about the possibility of infection or vision loss until it is too late. This greatly impacts Soldier readiness."

A tip for current contact users:

Although contact lens fittings aren't a Tricare benefit, providers may refit patients with the contacts they currently have, letting them avoid a fitting fee, said Dr. (Capt.) Steven Gutierrez.

"Not every provider will do this; it is provider preference, but if you follow the guidelines below, they are likely to do it," he said.

"If you are an existing contact lens patient, be sure to bring your prescription or the boxes of lenses when you come in to the appointment, and wear your lenses to the exam. This helps the doctor tremendously if the current lenses fit well and the patient has no complaints with the current lenses. This will enable the doctor to refit you in your lenses, make adjustments if necessary and save you money."

7 Guidelines for Contact Lens Hygiene

1. Before handling lenses, wash your hands with soap and water.

2. Minimize contact with water, including removing them before showering, swimming and hot tubs.

3. Never rinse your lenses with saliva. It is not a sterile solution.

4. Don't use saline solution or rewetting drops to disinfect lenses. Neither is effective.

5. Follow specific cleaning instructions from your eye-care provider or the solution manufacturer instruction on the packaging.

6. Always rub and rinse your contacts, even if the solution says "no rub."

7. Don't reuse solution by "topping it off" in the contact lens case.