Can My Eyes Get Sunburned?

By Dr. Cheryl G. Murphy

Warm weather is here and people just can’t wait to get outdoors. However, it’s important to remember, while enjoying some fun in the sun, we also have to protect our eyes and face from ultraviolet radiation.

UV light can affect our eye health and have short term and long term effects. One of the short term effects it can have is photokeratitis. If we are overexposed to intense UV light, we can later suffer a sort of “sunburn to the corneas” called photokeratitis. Photokeratitis (also known as UV keratitis) is an intensely painful condition that can temporarily impair our vision. Besides blurry vision, other symptoms include “red eyes, a foreign body sensation or gritty feeling in the eyes, extreme sensitivity to light and excessive tearing.” Since the intensity of UV radiation increases with increasing altitude, hikers or those who live in areas of higher elevation are often even at a slightly higher risk for photokeratitis. It has been said that for every 1,000 feet we climb in elevation the amount of UV radiation that reaches our eyes increases by 4 percent. Also, the higher we climb, the more likely we are to encounter snow in some areas of the US. Snow can act almost like a mirror, bouncing over 80 percent of UV light back up toward our eyes.

Whether you are trekking on trail or basking at the beach, you need to gear up with the right eye protection to minimize the risk of our eyes getting burned. Photokeratitis can be triggered after as little as two hours of intense sun exposure. Similar to the mountains, sand and surf also pose a threat. Sand reflects 25 percent of UV light and water has the potential to reflect up to 100 percent. It is essential to protect your eyes from this reflected danger by wearing properly fitting UV protection in order to avoid an extremely painful ordeal later.

In addition to all that pain, photokeratitis can also make it difficult to see. Some have even nicknamed it “snow blindness.” The good news is that “symptoms may last from 6 to 24 hours, but they usually disappear within 48 hours…[but remember] the longer you’re exposed to UV light, the more severe your symptoms might be.”

Treatment for photokeratitis is relatively palliative. Staying in a dimly lit room, applying cool compresses gently over closed eyes, using preservative-free artificial tears for lubrication, taking an over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen or equivalent, removing and discontinuing use of contact lenses and possibly being prescribed an antibiotic in eye drop form if your eye care professional deems it necessary can help with the healing process and some of the pain.

Prevention is worth a pound of cure as they say. Wearing high quality sunglasses that properly fit the face can make a world of a difference and become the difference between you enjoying a day of outdoor leisure carefree or dealing with the aftermath of the sun’s sizzle. Get prescription sunglasses from your eye care professional and have their optician ensure their proper fit and coverage in order to avoid photokeratitis. If you do think you have photokeratitis, get it checked out promptly by your eye doctor. Some longer term effects can happen to the cornea in cases of severe burns so get it looked at to ensure the best possible healing and outcome.

Photo by Lindsay Lenard-  Unsplash



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