Living Well

Summer Eye Safety: Protecting Your Eyes From Sun Damage

Last updated: Jun 28, 2010



Most of us know that it’s important to wear sunscreen and protective clothing when we’re going to be in the sunshine. But did you know that it’s just as important to protect your eyes as it is to protect your skin? Two ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause long-term eye damage: UV-A rays and UV-B rays. UV-A rays damage the macula, a part of the retina at the back of the eye that is responsible for central vision; and UV-B rays damage the cornea and lens of the eye.

When your eyes are exposed to too many UV rays, you risk having or developing:

  • Macular degeneration
  • Cataracts
  • Pterygia
  • Skin cancers around the eyes (periocular cancers)
  • Corneal sunburn

A leading cause of blindness in the elderly, macular degeneration (or age-related macular degeneration) makes it difficult to see details. In its early stages, the condition often has no symptoms. Eventually, though, macular degeneration will progress until things look blurry, distorted, and dim. Colors also might seem faded. People with macular degeneration often complain that it’s difficult to read print or see details without lots of light. People with severe macular degeneration suggest they cannot recognize faces until they are close to them. Macular degeneration can occur in one or both eyes.

When natural proteins (or crystallins) in the eye clump together, they cloud the lens and make it difficult to see—a condition known as a cataract. Much like the lens of a camera, the lens of the eye focuses light onto the retina to enable clear vision close up and far away. Cataracts prevent enough light from passing through the lens, which results in cloudy, fuzzy, or filmy vision. People with cataracts often say colors appear faded and that they see two objects where they should see one. They also complain of having more difficulty seeing at night than in the day and they suggest they see halos around lights, are sensitive to glare, and have difficulty seeing differences between certain colors. Although cataracts typically occur as part of the aging process, ultraviolet exposure can worsen them. Left untreated, cataracts tend to worsen. They can occur in one or both eyes.

Ptygeria are painless, slightly raised noncancerous growths in the clear tissue that covers the white part (conjunctiva) of the eye. They often appear along with blood vessels on the inner and outer edge of the cornea. If they’re untreated, pterygia can grow into the cornea and block vision. Common in people who work outside and are exposed to sun and wind, pterygia can grow in one or both eyes.

Periocular cancers such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma can grow on the lids and tissue surrounding the eyes. Although they can be cured and managed if they are found and treated early, they can be difficult to remove and, in some cases, be disfiguring if they are left untreated. In severe cases, periocular cancers can result in the loss of an eye.

Corneal sunburn is the result of either long-term exposure or intense short-term exposure to UV-B rays. It is painful and can cause temporary vision loss.

Protecting Your Eyes
“The best way to protect your eyes from UV rays is to limit the time you spend in the sun,” says Summit Medical Group Ophthalmologist Eric B. Gurwin, MD. “If, however, you’re planning to be outside for an extended period especially between 10 AM and 4 PM when the sun is at its brightest, there are important steps you should take to avoid damaging your eyes.”
They include:

  • Wearing prescription or nonprescription sunglasses that absorb UV rays and
    —Have a dark tint
    —Filter 99% to 100% of UV rays (look for a label confirming UV protection)
    —Reduce glare
    —Fit well enough and stay in place
  • Wearing a broad-rimmed hat to shade your eyes and the skin around your eyes

Dr. Gurwin adds, “Although UV rays come from the sun, they also reflect off of bright surfaces such as water, sand, and snow. For this reason, it’s especially important to wear sunglasses when you’re at the beach or when skiing or hiking on snow.”

Don’t forget that children need even more eye protection from the sun than adults. In addition to following all the same steps for adults, be sure your child’s sunglasses fit well and stay in place during his or her activities.

If your vision has changed recently or you’d like to have an examination for macular degeneration, cataracts, ptygeria, or another condition, our ophthalmologists are uniquely qualified to diagnose and treat you. In addition to serious eye conditions, our physicians also perform general eye examinations, prescribe corrective lenses, and dispense contact lenses.

For more information or an appointment,
please call Summit Medical Group Ophthalmology
at 980-277-8682.