Patient fact sheet
The California Optometric Association wants you to be a wise contact lens consumer, especially if you buy them online or over the phone. While these purchases are convenient, they also require consumers to exercise concern. The following tips will help you take simple precautions when buying contact lenses from sources other than your optometrist.
Frequently Asked Questions & Answers
What do I need to consider when buying contact lenses over the Internet or phone?
Is your contact lens prescription current? You should always have a current, correct prescription when you order contact lenses.
If you have not had an eye exam in the last one to two years, you may have problems with your eyes that you are not aware of, or your contact lenses may not correct your vision well.
The expiration date for your contact lens prescription is currently set by the State of California — for normal prescriptions, it is one to two years. If you have additional health concerns, your doctor may place a shorter time period on your contact lens prescription.
Never order lenses with a prescription that has expired.
What does a valid contact lens prescription include?
State law requires that a valid contact lens prescription include: the power, the material or manufacturer or both, the base curve or appropriate designation, the diameter (when appropriate), and an appropriate expiration date.
The prescription should also include your name, along with the name, address, telephone number and license number of the optometrist and his/her signature.
More detailed prescriptions will include directions for safe use such as a wearing schedule, whether the lenses are for daily or extended wear, the number of refills, and whether lens material substitutions are allowed.
Internet sites should ask for information about your doctor so they may verify the prescription with the doctor. California law requires them to do this if they don’t have a copy of the written prescription. If the company does not ask for this information, they are not complying with state law.
Will I get in trouble if I buy my contact lenses through an outside source and I don’t have a copy of my prescription?
If a company sells contact lenses to you without a copy of your prescription (or without verifying a prescription with your doctor) the company is selling you a prescription device as if it were an over-the-counter device. This is a violation of the Federal prescription device regulation and California law. In order to comply with California law, companies must either receive a copy of your prescription or confirm the prescription with your doctor to ensure the prescription information is correct.
Some Internet sites will allow you to fill out a chart with the ordering information about your contact lenses and ask you to fill in your doctor’s name and phone number. Make sure you complete this section so the company can comply with state law and verify your prescription.
Under state law, your doctor is given a reasonable amount of time to confirm your contact lens prescription (approximately one business day) with the company you have selected. If the company does not hear from your doctor within that time period, they are allowed to send your contact lenses to you.
What harm can be done if I don’t have regular check-ups with my doctor or I order lenses without a valid prescription?
At your eye exam, your doctor will re-evaluate the fit of your contact lenses and observe any changes in your cornea caused by your lenses. You will benefit from having a correct, current prescription and you may avoid serious problems, especially if you wear your lenses on an extended or overnight schedule.
Though infections of the cornea are rare, severe cases can cause loss of vision and even blindness. During regularly scheduled visits, your eye doctor looks for irregularities that, if left untreated, may lead to severe problems. These irregularities often have no symptoms and you may be totally unaware of them.
Contact lens wear causes many changes to cells and tissues of the eye, and sometimes wearing contact lenses can damage the cornea (the clear window of the eye). Even if you are currently experiencing no problems, the lenses may be causing damage to your eyes. Regular eye exams will reduce the likelihood of damage going undetected.
Contact lenses that are not properly fitted by a doctor might not work well, or even worse, may harm your eyes.
Will regular eye exams help prevent me from having problems with my contact lenses?
Anyone wearing contact lenses runs an increased risk of corneal infection. Regular exams will help reduce your chance of having problems. Your doctor may find something that requires refitting with a new lens or requires modifying your wearing schedule.
What can I do to avoid serious problems with my contact lenses?
Ask your doctor how often you should have an eye exam and see the doctor according to the recommended schedule.
You run a greater risk of developing serious eye problems such as infections if you wear lenses overnight.
If you purchase your lenses from the Internet, by phone or by mail, order your contact lenses from a supplier you are familiar with and know is reliable. Contact lenses are often more complex than they appear.
Request the manufacturer’s written patient information for your contact lenses. It will give you important risk/benefit information, as well as instructions for use.
Do not allow a company to substitute a different brand or manufacturer than you currently have. While this may be acceptable in some situations, there are differences in the water content and shape between different brands. The correct choice of which lens is right for you should only be made based on examination by your doctor, not over the phone or Internet.
Carefully check to make sure the company gives you: the exact brand, lens name, power, sphere, cylinder (if any), axis (if any), diameter, base curve and peripheral curves (if any).
If you think you have gotten an incorrect lens, check with your doctor. Don’t accept a substitution unless your doctor approves it.
Are decorative/cosmetic contact lenses different than corrective contact lenses? Do I have to follow the same guidelines for these “fun” lenses?
Yes, these contact lenses must be treated the same as corrective contact lenses. The FDA warns patients that these types of lenses have the same serious risks of permanent eye injury, including infection (conjunctivitis), corneal edema (swelling), allergic reaction, corneal abrasion, corneal ulcers and even blindness.
Decorative/cosmetic contact lenses must be prescribed and fitted by either an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Never purchase these cosmetic lenses without proper fitting and a prescription.
Patients should not purchase these types of lenses from unregulated entities like flea markets and other novelty stores.
Where can I report problems that I have with my contact lenses?
Always contact your doctor for medical advice.
For problems with an ophthalmologist, registered dispensing optician or contact lens seller, contact the Medical Board of California or (800) 633-2322.
For problems with an optometrist, contact the State Board of Optometry at www.optometry.ca.gov or (800) 547-4576.
You can report a serious eye problem associated with your contact lenses with the FDA’s MedWatch reporting form at www.fda.gov/medwatch or by calling (800) FDA-1088.
You can report problems involving contact lens sales by Web sites by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you did not get the exact lenses you ordered, you should report the problem directly to the company that supplied them.