Most people are surprised to learn that their eyes are equally as susceptible to sun damage as their skin. The cornea, a clear layer that covers the pupil and iris, is composed of epithelial cells similar to those that make up our skin. Both our corneas and our skin function as protective barriers for the deeper, more fragile components of our bodies.
Although these layers are intended to take a beating from environmental sources, overexposing them to sun can be both painful and detrimental to your health. For most people, small doses of ultraviolet (UV) light don’t result in significant injury. However, prolonged or magnified exposure to UV radiation can cause severe inflammation to the cornea and conjunctiva (the layer lining the insides of your eyelids and covering the whites of your eyes). This painful eye condition is known by a number of different names including snow blindness, arc eye, flash burns, ultraviolet keratitis, and photokeratitis.
Natural sources of UV radiation can be harmful, especially in highly reflective environments such as ice or snow fields, out on open water, or in areas covered with white sand. Tanning beds, welder’s arcs, and certain kinds of lamps are artificial sources of UV radiation that can have the same effect. Repeated ultraviolet damage to the cornea can lead to a number of more serious ocular disorders, some of which may be sight-threatening. Unfortunately, individuals usually do not realize that they have sunburned their eyes until 6-12 hours after exposure.
According to Dr. Dave Ardaya, O.D. with the California Optometric Association, “while we should all take care to protect ourselves from UV radiation, there are some people who are more at risk. Individuals with light eyes (blue, green, and hazel) may be at higher risk of developing eye diseases tied to UV radiation.” Additionally, “those taking photosensitizing medication are more sensitive to the sun, making them more vulnerable,” he says.
Symptoms include swelling, redness, pain, and general sensitivity and irritation of the eyes. Typically, your corneas will repair themselves in as little as 24-48 hours, but if you have sustained particularly severe burns, you may want to see a doctor. He or she may use an eye drop solution containing fluorescein dye, which better shows UV damage during an examination.
Inflamed corneas can be susceptible to infection, so your doctor may provide you with preventative antibiotic eye drops. In addition to plenty of rest and avoiding further sun exposure or bright lights, artificial tears, cold compresses, and over-the-counter pain relievers can also be used to minimize symptoms.
Simple precautionary measures can significantly reduce your risk of corneal damage. Suitable eye protection is of utmost importance to prevent photokeratitis and many other eye conditions. “Scientific studies and research have shown that exposure to small amounts of UV radiation over a period of many years increases the chances of developing a cataract and macular degeneration,” says Dr. Ardaya.
Whether you are at the beach, out on the water fishing, welding something in your garage, or skiing, be sure to wear sunglasses, a welding helmet, or ski goggles. Dr. Ardaya recommends wraparound sunglasses specifically. Larger frames offer increased protection from the sun for both your eyes and your eyelids, which can be prone to various skin cancers, like basal cell carcinomas.
Ideally, “sunglasses should block out 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation and screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light,” Dr. Ardaya says. “Polarized lenses are a good option because they can specifically block out the most prominent light rays while maintaining clear vision.” There is no excuse for forgoing proper eye protection, especially since many lower-cost UV-blocking sunglasses are widely available.