MINNEAPOLIS - Paula Budish distinctly remembers the last time she wore contact lenses.
"My eye was all pink, and it felt like there was something in my eye," Budish said, describing the morning, 15 months ago, when her vision began to fade.
Though she and her doctor originally thought it was pink eye, the infection continued to spread and she soon learned it was much worse than she thought.
"(My doctor) said, 'I need to get a special microscope because I have an idea that it might possibly be a parasite," Budish said.
That closer look revealed the Acanthamoeba parasite, which can infect and destroy the cornea and white of the eye, and it lives in almost any kind of water.
"There's no way to just sterilize them from the entire environment," said Dr. Joshua Hou, Assistant Professor of Opthalmology at the University of Minnesota. "You can add all the chlorine you want to a swimming pool and they're still there."
And Dr. Joshua Hou says your eyes are more likely to take them in if contact lenses aren't taken out.
"No matter how good the contact lens fits, no matter how fresh the contact lens is, it's still somewhat abrasive to your cornea," Dr. Hou said. "And if there is any breakdown of that barrier and you even get a little drop of water in your eye, then infections can set in."
Budish isn't sure if her infection originated at a lake or in the shower, but she quickly discovered it took most of the sight in her left eye.
"In April, We had my first cornea transplant," she said.
She would undergo a second cornea transplant months later, yet it was still too late to remove the parasite. She soon learned it had spread to the white of her eye, which often means there is little hope.
"That usually means essentially just removing the eye completely," said Dr. Hou.
But first, Budish tried an experimental drug, a pill that began targeting the parasite.
"This looks way, way better," said Dr. Hou, during a recent appointment. So much better that he later gave her the news she had been hoping for.
"You're free of the parasite at this point," Dr. Hou said. The road back to sight is now within focus with a surgery planned to reconstruct the eye.
"Just make sure that you're taking them out (in the water)," Budish said. "And if you get a bad, shooting pain in your eye that you need to get to a doctor right away and not just think, 'Oh well, it will go away.'"
The symptoms of a parasite are often similar to other eye problems, but Dr. Hou says early detection is critical to defeating it.
The CDC has a number of helpful tips about how to protect yourself from the Acanthamoeba parasite.
What can I do to reduce my risk of developing Acanthamoeba keratitis?
These guidelines should be followed by all contact lens users to help reduce the risk of eye infections, including Acanthamoeba keratitis:
Visit your eye care provider for regular eye examinations.
Wear and replace contact lenses according to the schedule prescribed by your eye care provider.
Remove contact lenses before any activity involving contact with water, including showering, using a hot tub, or swimming.
Wash hands with soap and water and dry before handling contact lenses.
Clean contact lenses according to instructions from your eye care provider and the manufacturer's guidelines.
Never reuse or top off old solution. Use fresh cleaning or disinfecting solution each time lenses are cleaned and stored.
Never use saline solution or rewetting drops to disinfect lenses. Neither solution is an effective or approved disinfectant.
Be sure to clean, rub, and rinse your lenses each time you remove your lenses. Rubbing and rinsing your contact lenses will aid in removing harmful microbes and residues.
Store reusable lenses in the proper storage case.
Storage cases should be rubbed and rinsed with sterile contact lens solution (never use tap water), emptied, and left open to dry after each use.
Replace storage cases at least once every three months.
Contact lens users with questions regarding which solutions are best for them should consult their eye care providers. They should also consult their eye care providers if they have any of the following symptoms: eye pain or redness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, sensation of something in the eye, or excessive tearing.