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Yes, Your Eyes Can Get Sunburned

We know ultraviolet radiation (UV) can cause sunburn that puts us at risk for skin cancer. But did you know your eyes can also get sunburned? 

“Photokeratitis is the term for sunburned eyes, and it happens when intense sun exposure over many hours damages the outer layers of cells on the cornea,” explains Nishika M. Reddy, MD, an ophthalmologist at John A. Moran Eye Center. “When those cells die and shed, it’s painful. Your eyes will swell and tear a lot, and you could have blurry vision. You’ll probably be extra light-sensitive, too.” 

UVA and UVB rays can burn the eyes

Reddy advises seeing an ophthalmologist right away if you experience any of these symptoms after being out in the sun. If your eyes become infected, the cornea can scar over and become opaque, permanently affecting your sight.  

If you avoid infection, photokeratitis usually clears up on its own in a few days. The bad news: excessive, unprotected sun exposure can cause faster development of cataracts (clouding of the eye’s natural lens) and eye or eyelid cancer.  

Beyond sunburns, growths on the outer layer of the eye, such as pterygium, may show up in our teens or 20s. Skiers, anglers, farmers, and others who spend hours under the midday sun or near rivers, oceans, and mountains are at higher risk. 

Tips for avoiding sunburned eyes

  • Make sure your sunglasses provide 100% UV or UV 400 protection—and keep them on as long as you are in the sun. That goes for kids of all ages, too.  
  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses that protect against UV rays that come from the side. These wrap-around shades also shield your eyes from wind, which contributes to dry eyes.  
  • Avoid the sunlight when it is strongest: midday to early afternoon, at higher altitudes, and when reflected off water, ice, or snow.  
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat with your sunglasses. 
  • Recognize that clouds don’t block UV light. The sun’s damaging rays can pass through haze and clouds. 
  • Make sure to wear SPF on your face as the skin around the eyelids is the thinnest on the body. 
  • Never, ever look directly at the sun.