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Living Well

Protect Your Eyes from the Sun

Last updated: Jun 27, 2016

The sun’s rays damage more than just your skin
—they hurt your eyes, too.

It is fairly common knowledge that prolonged exposure to the sun can damage our skin and increase our risk of developing cancer. But did you know that the eyes are susceptible to sun damage as well?

Studies show that long-term exposure to sunlight puts individuals at risk of developing eye diseases that are the leading causes of vision loss in adults, including:

  • Cataracts
  • Cancer
  • Macular degeneration

Sunlight exposure can also speed up the progression of these conditions in their early stages. The culprit: ultraviolet (UV) radiation—invisible, yet harmful rays that come both from sunlight and man-made sources like tanning beds.

For years, evidence has continued to show that over time unprotected exposure to the sun damages the surface of the eye, as well as the lens inside the eye,” explains Hamed Lari, MD, an ophthalmologist at Summit Medical Group. “We find a significantly higher prevalence of these eye conditions in people who live by the equator.”

Screenings Critical to Your Eye Health  

Early detection of eye conditions can be difficult. Symptoms rarely appear until the disease becomes advanced. As a result, Dr. Lari urges healthy patients to have an eye exam every two years to screen for cataracts and macular degeneration. Cataracts cloud the normally clear lens of the eye and macular degeneration causes the retina to deteriorate.

“Oftentimes individuals who do not wear glasses forget to make appointments, but eye screenings are essential for everyone,” Dr. Lari explains. “Elderly patients, or those with risk factors for eye disease, should come in every year.”

Eye Disease Is Both Common And Potentially Serious

More than half of all Americans have had either a cataract or cataract surgery by age 80, according to the National Eye Institute. Nearly two million people in the nation have macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. Furthermore, even though there are only 2,810 new cases of eye cancer each year, melanoma—a potentially fatal form of cancer—can start in the eyeball and spread quickly to other parts of the body.  

Most of these statistics are expected to double by 2050.  Monica Khalil, MD, an ophthalmologist at Summit Medical Group says there continues to be a lack of awareness. “Dermatologists do a wonderful job advising people not to go to the mailbox without sunscreen, but people remain very lax about sunglasses,” she says. “Many of my patients think they are used only for comfort.” For example, she says, individuals who have fair skin and light-colored eyes tend be more sensitive to the sunlight. Blue and green eyes have thinner irises, which allow more sunlight to enter the eye. However, eyes of all colors are still susceptible to damage.

Preventing Long-Term Sun Damage

Dr. Lari advises his patients to be careful in the sun, particularly if they have a family history of eye disease.

Follow these tips to protect your eyes and enjoy your summer safely:   

  • Wear quality sunglasses – Look for sunglasses that are labeled 100% protection against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA/UVB) rays. Sporty shades that wrap around the entire face provide the most coverage. Broad-brimmed hats provide an additional buffer from the sun.

    “Cheap over-the-counter sunglasses can be even more detrimental than not wearing sunglasses because your pupil will dilate when you dim the environment around you. Without the proper protection, more light will enter into the eyes than before,” explains Dr. Khalil.
     
  • Limit exposure — Stay out of the sun between the peak hours of 10am and 2pm. The sun can be harmful even when it is cloudy or cool outside.
     
  • Educate children — Harmful UV exposure begins early. Since kids spend a significant amount of time outdoors, they need to protect their eyes from a young age.

Preventing Acute Eye Damage

Indirect sunlight can also cause acute damage to the eyes.

“Most people know not to look directly into the sun or at a solar eclipse,” explains Dr. Lari. “But when sunlight reflects off water and snow, it intensifies and enters the eye at a parallel angle. This is as damaging as if the person was staring at the sun.”

Dr. Lari refers to this as a “double hit” because it causes both direct and indirect exposure. As a result, the surface of the eye—known as the cornea—becomes inflamed, which leads to decreased vision and pain. In severe cases, this exposure can damage the retina and cause a condition known as snow blindness, or photokeratitis. Similar symptoms occur when people stare at a solar eclipse.

“People who ski or participate in water sports are at the greatest risk of developing snow blindness, particularly if they are at high elevations,” says Dr. Lari. “People who have acute damage from the sunlight usually have some pain, discharge, decreased vision, or notice halos around lights.”

References:

  1. Hamed B. Lari, MD, ophthalmologist
  2. Monica Khalil, MD, ophthalmologist
  3. National Eye Institute – Facts about Cataracts- https://nei.nih.gov/health/cataract/cataract_facts
  4. National Eye Institute - Prevalence of Age-Related Macular Degeneration in the United States-  https://nei.nih.gov/eyedata/pbd4
  5. American Cancer Society – Eye Cancer Statistics - http://www.cancer.org/cancer/eyecancer/detailedguide/eye-cancer-key-statistics
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