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Can Your Eyes Get Sunburned?

Jun 22, 2015

We all know the sun can do a real number on unprotected skin. UV radiation can cause sunburns that actually change our DNA and put us at risk for skin cancer. But did you know that your eyes can get sunburned, too? The fact is, they are every bit as vulnerable as skin.

"Photokeratitis," the term for sunburned eyes, is a result of exposure to strong UV rays, usually for hours without protection says Jeff Pettey, MD, director of the John A. Moran Eye Center Residency and Training Program and chief of ophthalmology at the Salt Lake VA Medical Center. "The sun's rays bounce off of water, sand, or pavement and right into your eyes, damaging the outer layers of cells, and those cells die and shed. Not only is it painful, but you'll probably be extra light-sensitive, too. Your eyes will swell and tear up a lot, and your vision could be blurry."

What to Do?

"If you're experiencing any of these symptoms after being out in the sun, see an ophthalmologist right away," says Pettey. "You might need antibiotics to prevent an infection, which sometimes happens afterward."

Your sight could be affected permanently if your eyes become infected, as the corneas can scar over and become opaque. If a scar is created in your line of vision, it could affect your sight forever. The good news is, if you can avoid infection photokeratitis usually clears up on its own in a few days. The bad news is that excessive sun exposure can lead to cataracts and eye or eyelid cancer.

So why even go there at all? "You can avoid a world of pain by simply buying a pair of 100 percent UV blocking sunglasses, preferably wrap-round models that protect from UV rays that come in from the side. Plus, they shield the wind that makes your eyes dry," Pettey says. "They absolutely do not have to be expensive .They just have to fit well—and of course you have to keep them on as long as you are in the sun. That goes for kids of all ages, too. Their eyes are at particular risk for sun damage."

While you're at it, add a wide-brimmed hat and use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every single day, and have an epic summer!