Most of us know the importance of protecting our skin from the sun. While the most obvious effect of overexposure to the sun is burning, the true effects are not just superficial. UV exposure changes our skin at a cellular level, leading to sometimes irreparable damage. Our eyes react to UV light in exactly the same way, meaning that adequate protection is essential if we are to prevent them from being damaged from the sun.
There are three different types of UV radiation. UVC is one that we don’t have to worry about since it can’t penetrate beyond our ozone layer. However, both UVB and UVA rays can reach us. UVB affects the outer layer of the skin, and it is also very harmful to the clear, front part of the eye called the cornea. The cornea is the transparent, dome that is responsible for refracting light as it enters the eye. Meanwhile, UVA rays penetrate the skin the most and also affects the inner layers of the eyes, including the macular. However, both types of UV have serious consequences for your eyes and vision, putting you at risk of a range of conditions including cancer of the skin around the eyes.
Some of the other eye conditions associated with UV exposure include:
Photokeratitis. Also known as corneal sunburn or snow blindness, this occurs when the cornea becomes swollen and inflamed. It usually happens as a result of not wearing proper eye protection, particularly when the patient is in an environment where there is a lot of light reflection, such as on the water or snow. It can cause a variety of symptoms to include redness, blurred vision, excessive watering, pain, and light sensitivity.
Pinguecula. Pinguecula is characterized by a white or yellow raised area or bumps within the conjunctive – the gelatinous layer that covers the white part of the eye before it meets the colored iris. Pinguecula growths don’t disappear by themselves and can cause irritation and soreness. They are most common in people who live in very sunny, windy, dusty, and dry environments.
Pterygium. Also characterized by a growth, this time extending from the white part of the eye onto the cornea itself, pterygium is more visible than a pinguecula and can have significant consequences for your vision. Although generally not painful, if the growth is allowed to extend onto the cornea, it can cause scarring which could lead to permanent vision loss. The growth itself can also impair patient vision and surgery will be needed to remove it.
Macular degeneration. This condition is characterized by the natural degeneration of a part of the eye called the macula. The macula is responsible for our central vision and enables us to see fine details. As the cells of the macula deteriorate, so too does our vision. Studies have found that patients who have had more sun exposure during their life are more likely to suffer from macular degeneration and may develop it earlier than those patients who have worn protection. There’s no cure for macular degeneration, only treatment to slow its progression.
Cataracts. Cataracts, which is a condition where the natural lens of the eye develops cloudy patches that obscure your vision, are more commonly associated with advancing age. However, there is evidence that suggests that patients to have persistent exposure to UV radiation are more likely to develop cataracts earlier in life. Cataracts aren’t painful, but without treatment, they will impair your vision until you become completely blind. Treatment involves removing the natural lens of the eye and replacing it with an artificial alternative.
There are a few things that you can do protect your eyes from the effects of UV light. The most obvious is to wear sunglasses when you go outside. However, not just any sunglasses will do. Many are cheap, ‘fashion’ brands that offer little to no protection for your eyes. Instead, you should look for those with labels that show that they have been tested and have been found to block out 100% UV light. The style of sunglasses you choose can also have a bearing on how effective they will be at protecting your eyes from the radiation emitted by the sun. Small lenses and frames with wide gaps around them will let a good deal of light in around the sides, which could potentially reach your eyes. Oversized lenses, thick frames, close-fitting styles, and wraparound designs will offer you the greatest amount of protection.
Wearing a wide-brimmed or baseball-style hat/cap will offer an additional degree of protection to your eyes, preventing the light from creeping in over the top of your sunglasses. If you can, you should also avoid the sun during the middle part of the day when it is at its highest and see your eye doctor for regular comprehensive eye exams so that your vision can be closely monitored.
If you would like more information about UV protection and advice on how to keep your eyes safe, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our knowledgeable eye care team.