Can Your Eyes Get a Sunburn?
By now you know (we hope) that you should wear sunscreen, year-round, to protect your skin from sun damage. But did you know that without UV-ray-blocking sunglasses, your eyes can also suffer sunburns?
Damage to the eyes from sun is called “photokeratitis,” and we see a lot of it here in Utah—especially in spring, when you can ski, golf, and hike—sometimes all in one sunny day. “Photokeratitis is not only painful, but in rare cases it can cause temporary vision loss,” says Moran Eye Center ophthalmologist, Jeff Pettey, MD.
Pettey, who is also one of the official Utah Jazz team doctors and a provider for the US Olympic Committee’s National Medical Network, explains that “sun rays can bounce off water, sand, or pavement, and when those rays make contact with the naked eye, they cause damage to the outer layer of cells, and the clear front surface of the eye (the cornea) begins to break down. It becomes very light-sensitive and irritated. The conjunctiva, the cell layer covering the inside of the eyelids and whites of the eye is also affected.”
In other words, Pettey says, “You’ll know you have a real sunburn of the eye when it feels like someone has poured sand in your eyes, and at the end of the day all you can do is close your eyes and weep like a child.”
Other symptoms include light sensitivity, swelling, tears, and blurry vision, seeing halos, and swelling. The longer you’re exposed to UV rays, the more severe your symptoms will be.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you suspect you’ve burned your peepers, see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible. He or she can examine your eyes and use an eye drops with a special dye to look for UV damage.
Photokeratitis usually goes away on its own, so treatment focuses on getting some relief while your eyes heal.
If you wear contact lenses and you think you have sunburned eyes, remove the contacts immediately. Get out of the sun and into a dark room.
- Lay a clean, cold washcloth over your closed eyes and relax.
- Use artificial tears.
- Take pain relievers and use antibiotic eye drops if your doctor recommends them
The simple way to avoid sunburned eyes is for everyone, at every age, to wear sunglasses. And—add a hat for good measure. “Sunglasses (or ski goggles) don’t have to be expensive. They don’t have to be anything other than 100 percent UV protective,” Pettey advises.
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