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What Is Snow Blindness & How Can You Prevent It?

Jan 20, 2020
What Is Snow Blindness?

There's a reason you squint in bright sunlight. Your eyes are begging for protection against the glare of ultraviolet (UV) rays. But in situations where the sun's rays intensify as they reflect off of snow, water, or sand, that begging might turn into screaming if you forget your UV-blocking sunglasses or goggles, because yes—your eyes can get sunburned.

Known generally as snow blindness and technically as photokeratitis ("photo" for light and "keratitis" inflammation of the cornea), sunburned eyes can sneak up on you. As with sunburned skin, by the time you notice the symptoms of snow blindness, you've already been out in the sun too long.

Snow Blindness Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • eye pain,
  • a burning or gritty sensation in the eye,
  • sensitivity to light,
  • blurry vision, and
  • seeing halos around light sources.

Your eyes and eyelids may swell, and you could get a headache.

"You may not even experience the symptoms until several hours after the burn occurs," according to John A. Moran Eye Center Ophthalmologist Jean Tabin, MD. "Luckily, they are temporary and should subside in a day or two."

How to Treat Snow Blindness

If you suffer snow blindness, the best thing to do is give your eyes a rest. Stay indoors and wear sunglasses to reduce the amount of light exposure. If you wear contacts, take them out. Use preservative-free artificial tears to keep your eyes moist—think of it like using aloe vera for sunburn on your skin. Whatever you do, don't rub your eyes. This will only worsen the irritation.

If symptoms are severe, it may be best to see an ophthalmologist. You don't want to risk long-term damage.

Jean Tabin, MD

How to Prevent Snow Blindness

The best way to protect against snow blindness is to protect your eyes with sunglasses. It doesn't necessarily matter how dark they are, as long as they block 99 percent of the sun's UV rays. Wear them, even on overcast days, as UV rays can penetrate clouds.

"Bigger ones are better in the winter," notes Tabin. "Wearing goggles or sunglasses that wrap around will give you the most protection."