Young man (only hands) at optician with glasses is looking for sunglasses.

May 2, 2022

How UV light can damage your eyes.

Sometimes you just have to be outside. As the days are getting longer and warming up, the lake beckons, and the beach calls. The garden needs more tending, and the kids seem to always be out in the yard. It’s definitely time to get new bathing suits and head to the pool. You can smell the sunscreen and chlorine just thinking about it. 

Do you think of your eyes as being as susceptible to sun damage as your skin? In reality, they are at just as much risk of being harmed by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun as any other part of you. Eyes can even get sunburnt too! In the same way that you put on sunscreen when planning to be outside for a longer period of time, you should also make sure you are taking similar steps to protect your eyes. 

What sort of damage do UV rays cause? 

UV damage can be acute, short onset, and short-lasting; or more chronic, where damage is cumulative and appears more gradually over time. 

Prolonged unprotected sunlight exposure can cause the eye to develop cataracts. This will cause blurred or darkened vision but can be easily corrected with a relatively simple, low-risk surgery

UV exposure can also cause macular degeneration in the eye, causing significant vision loss and farsightedness. The good news is that for the most part, the lens in your eye helps to filter these harmful rays, even if they are artificially implanted ones. 

Pterygium, sometimes known as surfers’ eye, is one of the other ways in which eyes can be affected by the sun. This happens when the eye’s protective membrane (the conjunctiva) gets inflamed and grows toward the optical center of the eye. This occurs more often in people who undergo prolonged exposure to reflected sunlight, such as off the water or snow. Surfers, fishermen, kayakers, skiers, and mountaineers, we’re looking at you. Generally, those with pterygium will have dry, itchy, red, teary eyes, and the eyes themselves will feel “gritty.” Additionally, there can sometimes be a growth on the eye and will be seen in the white of the eye. One thing that can provide relief, in addition to sunglasses, is the use of artificial tears. 

When the eye gets excessive exposure to UV rays, either artificial or natural, the cornea can get burnt. This is the ocular equivalent of a sunburn, known as keratitis, with many similarities depending on the severity of the burn. At the more serious level, the eye can swell, the cornea becomes inflamed, and the patient will experience extreme light sensitivity and may have permanent damage. 

Another possible harmful effect of too much UV exposure is the development of skin cancer, specifically on the eyelid. This is an area that is very sensitive, and hard to protect without covering. While the eyelid can experience burning just like any other part of the body, also be on the lookout for any other abnormalities in the area such as bumps, sensitive patches, bleeding, trouble healing, inflammation of the eyelid, or any eyelash loss. 

What steps can you take to protect your eyes? 

It’s important to remember that the sun can damage the eyes as much as any other part of the body, and take protective steps with the same frequency and regularity. Below are the best protective measures you can take, as well as some helpful reminders and facts that you may have missed. 

  • Wear sunglasses. Sunglasses that block UVA and UVB rays will help protect your eyes both from natural and artificial light 
  • Wear UV blocking goggles when surfing, swimming, skiing, etc
  • Avoid using tanning beds and booths
  • Get a wide-brimmed hat to help shade your eyes (and wear it!) 
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight – take breaks too
  • The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM
  • UV rays are not blocked by clouds, be sure to protect yourself even when it’s not sunny 
  • Make sure children and teens wear protection too
  • Certain contacts and glasses have built-in UV protection -enquire with your eye care team about getting these

If you are having trouble with your vision, never hesitate to book an appointment to meet with your eye care specialist. However, much of the damage to the eyes caused by sun exposure is harder to self-diagnose and will be seen by your doctor before you notice symptoms. At your next visit, speak with your care team both about whether they see any damage in your eyes currently, as well as what protective measures are best for you.

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