Craig Melvin broke a few personal records on Aug. 30. For the first time in his 15-year broadcasting career, he wore glasses on-air, and he finally gave up his “filthy” habit of sleeping in his contact lenses over that same timespan.
“I was one of those people that did not listen to their ophthalmologist when they would tell them repeatedly that they should not sleep in their contact lenses,” Melvin, 39, tells PEOPLE. “I never had any problems when I did, so if my eyes got dry I would just use rewetting drops. I just thought that maybe my eyes were different.”
But on Aug. 27, the Today show news anchor noticed redness in his left eye. Thinking it was just allergies, Melvin started taking medication, while his coworkers in the newsroom urged him to see a doctor. After two days he finally went — and learned that he had a corneal ulcer.
“The doctor said if it had gone untreated for several weeks it could have be irreparable,” he says.
Corneal ulcers are a potential foe for the estimated 45 million contact lens wearers nationwide. Though there aren’t too many cases each year — just around 30,000 to 75,000 — they are a major eye risk. They typically occur when people don’t clean their lenses properly, or sleep in them as Melvin was doing.
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“Usually you have a little bit of dry eye or an abrasion that allows bacteria to get in the eye and form an ulcer,” Detroit-based ophthalmologist Dr. Steven A. Shanbom, who did not treat Melvin, explains to PEOPLE. “When you’re sleeping and your eyes are closed, you’re not getting much oxygen into the eye, which allows these bacteria to grow. It sets up a perfect storm for infection.”
Melvin says his ophthalmologist likened leaving in his contacts to “wearing the same pair of underwear every day.”
“That was all I needed to hear,” the father of two says.
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As long as corneal ulcers are caught early, they can be treated easily with antibiotic drops, and heal within a week. But there are severe risks if they go untreated, including permanent scarring and decreased vision. “It’s got to be taken seriously,” Shanbom says.
To avoid corneal ulcers, Shanbom says it’s vital for contact lens wearers to wash their hands before taking out their contacts, and to use daily disposable lenses, if possible.
Melvin, for his part, says he’s learned his lesson, and has some advice for other contact lens wearers.
“Three words: Take them out,” he warns. “Don’t be an idiot like me.”