As ever, the British weather has an impeccable sense of timing because this week is Sun Awareness Week. And so, what better time for our resident Optometrist, Eleanor Beresford, to answer your burning questions about protecting your eyes in the sunshine?
Can eyes get sunburned?
The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that you can indeed get sunburned eyes and, just like sunburned skin, that sun damage could well come back to haunt you in later life.
Unprotected and prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet light can cause sunburned eyes, known as photokeratitis, resulting in amongst other things a burning sensation and blurred vision. It’s important to be aware that damaging ultraviolet rays don’t just come directly from the sun, but they can also bounce off reflective surfaces like water, for example.
How can you tell if your eyes are sunburned?
- Eye pain
- Burning sensations
- Red eyes
- Swollen eyes and/or lids
- Watery eyes
- Blurred vision
- Light sensitivity
- Glare and halos around lights
The good news is that these symptoms are temporary, so your eyes should recover on their own within 24 to 48 hours. If the symptoms last longer, do see an Optometrist, GP or phone the Eye Hospital immediately. In the meantime, you can help your eyes recover by:
- Staying indoors and wearing sunglasses to help with light sensitivity
- Keeping your eyes moist with artificial tears
- Using over-the-counter pain relievers
- Stopping wearing contact lenses until your eyes return to normal
- Soothing with a cool, damp cloth placed over your closed eyes
- Above all though, DO NOT rub your eyes
How do I know if I have sun damage to my eyes?
The first sign of sun damage could be that your eyes feel dry or look red after having been out in the sun. Yellowish deposits on the white of the eye can indicate long-term sun damage. There are also other changes that only a practitioner can diagnose, such as cataracts and macular degeneration for example.
I have problems with glare in bright sunlight. What can I do about this?
An optometrist can prescribe lenses to help make glare less of a problem for you. Tinted lenses, polarised and photochromic lenses, which darken when exposed to bright light, can all be helpful. For driving, do bear in mind that photochromic lenses will not darken properly inside modern cars due to the ultraviolet filters in windscreens – it is the sun’s ultraviolet light that makes photochromic lenses darken. Problems with glare often get worse with age and having lighter coloured eyes can also make you more sensitive to bright lights. If glare is a concern for you, please make sure you mention this to your optometrist.
What are the long-term risks of sun exposure to eyes?
The gradual build-up of sun damage over a lifetime can lead to various eye conditions in later life. Cataracts are commonly linked to excessive exposure to the sun and evidence suggests that exposure to high levels of ultraviolet light may lead to the development of cataracts at a younger age. Macular degeneration is another condition that has been linked with the harmful effects of ultraviolet light. Damage to the macula invariably leads to sight loss.
High levels of ultraviolet light exposure can also lead to growths across the conjunctiva, the membrane covering the eye. This can lead to conditions such as Pinguecula and Pterygium that can disfigure the eye and affect your spectacle prescription.
However, perhaps the most serious long-term effect of sun exposure is cancer of the eye or of the eyelid. Symptoms to look out for include shadowed or blurred vision and dark patches moving across the eye (not to be confused with ‘floaters’ that are generally harmless). Lumps in or around the eyelid are also a telltale sign to look out for, particularly if they have grown in size or are itchy. Needless to say, if you suffer any of these symptoms, you should consult your GP or optician.
How should I protect my eyes in the sun?
We all love a bit of sunshine, but now you know what the sun can do to your eyes, you’ll probably want to know how best to protect them from those harmful ultraviolet rays.
Perhaps it goes without saying that sunglasses are essential, but do make sure they offer a high level of protection against the ultraviolet light. The old saying, you get what you pay for, is often the case when it comes to sunglass lenses. Wrap-around sunglasses offer the best level of protection because they block ultraviolet rays coming in from the sides as well as over and under the lenses. You might also consider a wide-brimmed hat to provide shade for your face.
An important point to remember is that, just as your skin can get sunburned on cloudy days, so your eyes can too and you should wear sunglasses to protect them. Polarised lenses will help reduce the glare reflecting off other surfaces and don’t forget you can also get prescription sunglasses if necessary.
So, how do you know what level of protection sunglasses offer? Well, that’s an easy one to answer because there are EU standards for that. Lens protection against ultraviolet damage is rated from 0-4. Sunglasses with a rating of 2 offer medium sun glare reduction and good ultraviolet protection, while a rating of 3 means high sun glare reduction and good ultraviolet protection.
As far as contact lenses are concerned, there are some that are designed to block ultraviolet rays, but in any case, you should still wear sunglasses to protect the areas of your eyes not covered by the contact lenses.
And finally, if you’d like protection on daily basis, you can always add an ultraviolet filter coating to your everyday glasses. It’s a clear coating that can be used on most lens types. Just ask at your local optician.