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Can You Sunburn Your Eyes?

A young girl covering her eyes from the sun's rays. Risk of eye damage from ultraviolet (UV rays)

While ultraviolet (UV) rays keep you warm when you’re outside, they can be dangerous if you don’t protect your eyes. Long-term UV exposure puts you at a greater risk for certain eye conditions, like cataracts. The sun is nothing to underestimate, especially if you’re outside for a long time. 

Sunscreen isn’t the only thing you should be wearing out in the sun. If your eyes aren’t protected, can you sunburn them? 

Can You Sunburn Your Eyes?

Yes, you can sunburn your eyes when overexposed to UV light

Your eyes can become temporarily damaged due to sun exposure, affecting several areas of the eye, including: 

Damage to the eyes can vary depending on how long the eyes were exposed to the sun. 

The Danger of the Sun

Even on cloudy days, the sun can damage your eyes if you aren’t careful. UV rays can increase your risk of eye conditions like cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and eyelid skin cancer

Staying vigilant of the damage the sun can do can help you protect your vision. While not as serious as eye disease, sunburning your eyes can be uncomfortable and lower your quality of life.  

What Is Photokeratitis? 

Photokeratitis is the medical term for having sunburned eyes. Another popular term is snow blindness, common for skiers and snowboarders. This condition occurs when UV rays from the sun damage the eyes. 

You can sunburn your eyes when the sun reflects off sand, water, snow, or ice. Another possible cause is man-made UV light, like tanning beds. 

Regardless of the cause of photokeratitis, this condition is typically avoidable when wearing UV-blocking sunglasses. If you don’t protect your eyes, you may experience several irritating symptoms. 

A man is blinded by a strong light. His eyes are very sensitive to light a Photokeratitis symptom

Photokeratitis Symptoms

Just like a sunburn, symptoms of photokeratitis can sneak up on you. You may only notice the damage this condition has caused until you’re out of the sun and feeling uncomfortable. The longer UV rays hit your eyes, the worse your symptoms. 

You typically won’t notice symptoms of photokeratitis immediately, but they can include: 

  • Discomfort
  • Red eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Teary eyes
  • Light sensitivity 
  • Headaches
  • Halos in your vision 
  • Small pupils
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Temporary vision loss (in rare cases)
  • Grittiness
  • Swelling

Visit your optometrist if you experience any of these symptoms after spending time in the sun, water, or snow without eye protection. They can complete an eye exam to look for signs of UV damage. 

How to Avoid Sunburned Eyes

Photokeratitis can be irritating and uncomfortable, but it’s preventable if you’re cautious. Simply looking away from the sun won’t stop UV rays from reflecting off different surfaces. It’s better to be safe than sorry when spending time outdoors. 

You should take extra care when in certain environments, including when you’re: 

  • Around water: Sun rays can reflect off of water and sand near a beach, lake, pool, or when you’re on a boat. 
  • High in the mountains: The sun can reflect off ice and snow, making time outside dangerous for your eyes without protection. Be careful when skiing, snowboarding, or hiking to avoid photokeratitis. 
  • Out in the city: Sun protection is crucial, even in the city. UV rays can bounce off buildings, cars, windows, & other surfaces. 

Wear Sunglasses

Sunglasses are the best way to prevent unnecessary damage to your eyes from the sun. However, it’s important to invest in quality lenses. You can pick up a random pair of sunglasses from the convenience store, but they may not effectively block UV rays. 

Buying 99–100% UV-blocking sunglasses can help protect your eye health and vision. Your eye doctor has several styles of sunglasses available. UV protection technology has come a long way, so find the right lenses for your needs. 

How Can You Treat Photokeratitis? 

If you forget your sunglasses and damage your eyes, there’s good news—sunburned eyes aren’t usually concerning. Symptoms generally resolve on their own within a couple of days. As you recover, you can improve your comfort at home or ask your eye doctor about potential pain relievers. 

Some of the following at-home care can benefit your eyes

  • Avoid swimming or wear airtight goggles to prevent irritation.
  • Remove your contact lenses to help your eyes heal. 
  • Use eye drops to keep your eyes hydrated. 
  • Don’t rub your eyes—let them rest to prevent additional irritation. 
  • Use over-the-counter pain medication if necessary. 
  • Keep sunglasses with you to reduce discomfort from bright light. 
  • Don’t wear eye makeup or false eyelashes. 
  • Place a cool compress over your eyes to help relieve any discomfort. 

Protect Your Eyes With Quality Sunglasses

The sun can damage your eyes, but sunglasses can help protect your vision. UV-blocking sunglasses can keep you comfortable on the water or in the city. We have several UV-blocking lenses available at our practice. Contact 20/20 Vision Associates Optometry if you’re interested in quality sunglasses

Written by 2020 Riverside

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