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How Staring at the Sun Impacts Your Eyes and Tips to Protect Them

While most of us know to break out the sunscreen to prevent burns and long-term damage that leads to skin cancer, did you know it's just as important to protect your eyes? A lifetime of staring at the sun without the proper protection can lead to long-term vision problems, and potentially blindness, if you don't protect your eyes. Remember that cloud cover doesn’t protect against UV rays and even if your contacts contain UV protection sunglasses are still needed. We’ve shared some of the common issues that are associated with too much time spent in the sun, without proper eye protection, and what you can do to keep your eyes in great shape, not just for the summer but for life.

  • Sunburned Eyes: This is a condition called photokeratitis and it's best explained as a sunburn to your eye. Just as the UV rays can burn the top layers of our skin, they can also harm the surface of the cornea as well as the conjunctiva - the layer of cells lining our eyelids and the whites of the eye. This can happen when sunlight reflects off the surface of sand, water, ice, and snow (known as snow blindness). It can also occur through the use of tanning bed lamps. The symptoms are similar to a skin sunburn with pain, redness, swelling, tearing, blurriness, and headaches. Photokeratitis will eventually resolve on its own after a few days, so treatment aims to soothe the symptoms. However, the effects of repeated sun damage to the eye are cumulative, meaning the more it happens, the higher the risk for developing more severe eye problems.

  • Solar Retinopathy: The most common instance of solar retinopathy is direct eclipse viewing or sun gazing without adequate eye protection. UV rays enter the eye, going through the pupil to the retina at the back of the eye, damaging the rods and cones of the retina creating a blind spot. Similar to a sunburn, the damage occurs without any pain and the effects aren't noticed until a few hours after exposure. Symptoms may include soreness, watery eyes, difficulty discerning shapes or details of objects, and a blind spot in the center of your vision. There’s no treatment for solar retinopathy, and in most cases the body will heal itself with time.

  • Macular Degeneration: Damage to the macula is typically seen in older adults and is generally referred to as Aged-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). Though there are several factors contributing to this issue, repeated sun damage to the eyes from improper UV protection could be linked as one possible cause. The macula contains pigments, which filter certain types of UV light, to keep it from damaging other parts of the eye. It also protects the eye from free-radicals. When macular damage occurs, a person experiences blurred vision, difficulty seeing in dim light, and partial loss of vision. While there are ways to treat macular damage and reduce symptoms, there is no cure.

  • Permanent Blindness: The UV rays can cause other types of damage to the eyes including abnormal eye growth, cataracts, and cancer. Over time, the cumulative effect of one or more of these conditions will lead to permanent blindness.

Prevention: Choose Good UV Eye Protection

To protect yourself from sun damage to the eyes, proper sunglasses and eye protection is essential. There are two key components to look for when choosing the best eye protection:

  • They need to block 100% of UV rays - this includes UVA and UVB
  • They need to absorb HEV rays as much as possible. HEV is another type of radiation from the sun that can also damage the eye

Other suggestions when buying sunglasses include choosing large lenses to cover as much of the eye as possible or using a wrap around style that fits close to the face and covers the eye. Consider combining sunglasses with a hat to further block exposure to UV rays. Remember to protect infants and small children’s eyes as well and try to avoid exposure during the midday to early-afternoon hours when sunlight is the strongest.

Being in the sun isn’t all bad news! Our sleep-wake cycles are partially regulated by exposure to sunlight and it can help children’s eyesight develop. If you suspect you may have sun damage to the eyes or would like more information on how to best protect your eyes, contact us today to ask about our exams or other services.