O! say can you see with pepper juice in your eyes . . .

HAPPY EATER

July 26, 1992|By ROB KASPER

Call it the pepper-covered-contact-lens syndrome. Or jalapeno eyes. But if you have it, you call it painful.

It is an unusual affliction suffered by some contact lens wearers who eat hard crabs, or some other peppery morsel, with their hands.

Pepper lingers on their fingertips and cuticles, even after they wash their hands. So when the lens wearers put their contacts in overnight soaking solutions, some of the pepper comes loose and coats the lenses.

The next morning the pepper eaters rise, put in their lenses -- and scream. Their eyes feel as though they are on fire.

In Maryland, such cases of chemically induced keratitis, or inflammation of the cornea, are rare during the cooler months, said Philip Gruentzel, a contact lens optician at Boyers & Snyder in Towson.

But in late summer, when Marylanders traditionally gather around tables to eat steamed crabs covered with pepper, the burning eye caseload increases.

"Every crab season I get 10 to 12 cases," said Gruentzel. Often, he said, the calls from distressed contact lens wearers come early Sunday or Monday morning -- "the morning after" a big crab feast.

The condition is painful but usually does not cause lasting injury, said Gruentzel. To put out the blaze, Gruentzel recommends removing the lenses and giving them a series of baths in batches of contact lens cleaning solution that are changed every two hours.

Another Baltimore-area contact lens specialist familiar with the problem is Irwin Azman, who, along with his brother, Thomas, operates eye-care offices in Dundalk and Towson.

"I see about five to six cases a year, . . . mostly during crab season," said Azman.

Azman said that just this week he treated the owner of a Dundalk crab restaurant who got some of the house seasoning on her contact lens.

He said that he told anyone with "seasoned eyes" to give their lens a thorough soaking. And he recommended that they wash their hands several times after eating crabs.

Stinging eyes also afflict contact wearers in Gulf Coast and Mexican border states, said Joseph W. Soper. He teaches contact lens technology at Baylor University and is an owner of Soper International Opthalmics, a Houston-based manufacturer of contact lenses.

In the South and West, the culprit is usually edible peppers, with the primary suspect the pungent jalapeno pepper, Soper said in a telephone interview from Houston. As with crabs, the jalapeno scenario is that contact lens wearers nibble on a pepper, then unwittingly transfer the potent pepper juices to their lenses when they take them out at night. The surprise comes in the morning.

"It is a bigger problem with soft contact lenses," said Soper. He explained that this type of lens is made of a water-loving plastic that, much like a sponge, softens as it absorbs liquid.

If a soft lens sits overnight in a pepper-water solution, the irritants are absorbed into the body of the lens, Soper said. Getting the sting out of the lens requires soaking it in clean solution.

With hard contacts made of a Plexiglas-type of material, the irritants are more likely to stay on the surface of a lens and are easier to wash off, Soper said.

Back in Maryland, Gruentzel said that another reason hard contact wearers are unlikely to suffer from fiery eyes is the way they remove them.

Instead of touching the lenses with their fingers, they tend to "pop" the hard lenses from their eyes, he said. And by avoiding touching the lenses with their pepper-covered fingers, they avoid the inflammation.

Gruentzel said he became familiar with fiery eyes syndrome some 15 years ago when he moved to Baltimore.

A native of Memphis and a fledging crab eater, Gruentzel went to a neighborhood feast. He ate a stack of the crustaceans, removed his contact lens and slept the contented sleep of a satisfied eater.

The next morning when he put the lens in his eyes, he howled the cry of the cornea-inflamed.

The first time it happened to him, Gruentzel said, he didn't link his irritated eyes with the spice-covered crabs.

The second time it happened to him, he got wise.

Now after a crab feast, Gruentzel slips on a pair of surgical gloves and removes his contact lenses.

Putting on gloves is a bit of hassle, he said. But the alternative of not being able to eat peppered crabs would, he said, be unthinkable.

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