- Stacey Peoples says she contracted the eyeinfectionAcanthamoeba Keratitis after swimming while wearing contact lenses, CBS4 reported in September.
- The infection made her go blind in one eye until she received a cornea transplant.
- Acanthamoeba Keratitis is extremely rare in the US, but most cases do occur in contact lens wearers.
- Experts say contact wearers should never rinse or store lenses in tap water, and avoid bathing or swimming in their lenses.
A woman who contracted a parasitic eye infection that left her partially blind is retelling her painful story to offer others a warning: Never swim while wearing contact lenses.
Stacey Peoples, an educator from Colorado, believes the ordeal began back in 2014, when she went for an ordinary swim in a pool with her son, Colorado CBS affiliate CBS4 reported back in September. At the time, she was wearing contact lenses.
About a week later, her eye became red and itchy and began to hurt, Peoples told the “Today” show, also in September. Over the following weeks, her condition worsened and the pain intensified.
“It felt like somebody was snapping a rubber band in the front of my eye every few seconds, but then at the same time, the back of the eye felt like … it was going to explode through the back of my head,” she told “Today.” “The side of my face felt like a constant migraine.”
Soon, she lost vision in her eye and became so sensitive to light that she couldn’t work or drive.
“I was suicidal for a couple of days. If I had not had family and incredible support, I’m not sure what would have happened,” she told “Today.”
Eventually, a cornea specialist identified the root cause: Peoples was suffering from Acanthamoeba keratitis, a rare eye infection that’s most common in contact lens wearers and can happen after swimming or bathing in contact lenses.
“As soon as they diagnosed it as Acanthamoeba and they asked me if I swam and showered [in my contact lenses], I said yes,” Peoples told INSIDER in a recent interview. “I knew the day it happened because my son was 4 at the time and he was learning how to jump off the diving board. I was under the diving board and kept catching him over and over. And when I told the doctor that they said, ‘Yep, I’m sure that’s what it was.'”
At the time of her diagnosis, Peoples told INSIDER she was relieved to know the reason behind her terrifying symptoms – but she didn’t know at first that she was in for more than a year of treatment, and, eventually, a cornea transplant.
Here’s a closer look at Peoples’s story and the infection she battled.
Acanthamoeba Keratitis is caused by an amoeba, and contact users are more at risk
Acanthamoeba keratitis happens when the microscopic single-celled amoeba Acanthamoeba infects the clear outer covering of the eye, or the cornea, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Acanthamoeba is commonly found in air, soil, and water.
The symptoms can include eye pain and redness, blurred vision, light sensitivity, and a feeling that something is in your eye. The CDC recommends that anyone with these symptoms see their eye doctor, because untreated Acanthamoeba keratitis can lead to severe pain, vision loss, or blindness.
It can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages because the first symptoms tend to resemble other eye infections, according to Moorfields Eye Hospital in the UK.
The infection can happen to anyone, but about 85% of Acanthamoeba keratitis cases occur in contact lens wearers, according to the CDC. However, it’s important to know that the overall number of cases is extremely low. In developed countries, there are approximately one to 33 cases of the infection per million contact wearers, the CDC says.
Contact users are at a higher risk for the infection because soft contacts can act like a sponge, absorbing contaminated water and allowing impurities like Acanthamoeba to enter the eye through the cornea, Dr. Thomas Steinemann, a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), explained to the “Today” show.
And among people who use contacts, certain activities can increase the risk of getting Acanthamoeba keratitis, including improper lens disinfection, cleaning lenses in tap water, swimming or bathing while wearing lenses, according to the CDC.
“Our warning is: Contact lenses and water don’t mix,” Steinemann told the “Today” show.
“I did shower with [my contacts on] and I did swim with them all the time,” Peoples told INSIDER. “I think that’s part of why this story, in my opinion, is so important.”
Peoples endured 15 months of “acid drops” as treatment
The CDC says that an eye care provider can determine which prescription medications are needed to treat a case of Acanthamoeba keratitis.
According to the AAO website, medical treatment for the infection is “still evolving,” but successful treatment has been reported with combinations of antibiotic, antiparasitic, antifungal, and antiviral drugs. In a patient pamphlet on Acanthamoeba keratitis, Moorfields Eye Hospital notes that treatment typically includes antiseptic eye drops including PHMB, chlorhexidine, brolene, and hexamidine.
Peoples was prescribed eye drops that she had to use for 15 months, but they were so painful to use she described them as “acid drops,” the “Today” show reported.
She told INSIDER that it took a while for the treatment to improve her symptoms.
” [At first] it would not get better. I was going to the doctor two to four times a week and I’d go in and say, ‘No change,’ or it’d even look worse,” Peoples said. “About seven months in is when the pain started to go away. I was completely blind and the eye … looked like a zombie eye – it wasn’t red but it had a white cloud over it.”
The infection is extremely rare, but you can take steps to prevent it
Steinemann told the “Today” show that contact wearers should not shower or swim while wearing lenses. If you do swim in lenses, he added, you should take them out and disinfect them as soon as you get out of the water. (Or throw them away, if they’re the single-use variety.)
By the way: Keeping your contacts away from water will help prevent more than just Acanthamoeba keratitis. This habit is one component of good contact lens hygiene, which can lower the risk of other eye infections, too.
In its explanation of proper contact care, the AAO says lens wearers should always remove contacts before bathing, swimming, or doing anything where water can get into your eyes. The organisation adds that lenses should never be rinsed with or stored in tap water, either.
Peoples regained her lost sight after a corneal transplant
In April 2015, Peoples underwent a corneal transplant that restored the vision she’d lost, CBS4 reported.
She told INSIDER the discomfort of recovery was minimal after the debilitating pain she experienced in the active infection.
“I think technically [after the transplant] it kind of feels like there’s an eyelash in your eye all the time,” she said. “But because of the pain I had had prior, that was nothing.”
Throughout the course of her infection, treatment, transplant, and recovery, Peoples said she found support in her family and in a Facebook group for people who’ve suffered from Acanthamoeba keratitis.
The experience has also moved her to become an advocate for organ donation. (Here’s how you can register to be a cornea donor in the US.)
“[The transplant] gave me back my life, it gave me my job back, it gave me my kids back,” she told CBS4. “It was unbelievable. True miracle.”
Watch her complete interview with CBS4 below:
This post has been updated to include comment from Stacey Peoples and additional information on Acanthamoeba keratitis from Moorfields Eye Hospital.