When you think sunburn, you probably picture bright red shoulders, a lobster red chest or a nose that rivals Rudolph. While most of us are savvy enough these days to lather our skin with sunblock before heading outdoors, many of us forget to protect another important body part from those harmful ultraviolet rays.
Did you know that you can sunburn your eyes? A survey by the American Optometric Association found that 35 percent of Americans are unaware of the risk UV radiation poses to their eyes. Both adults and children are at risk for sunburned eyes and the effects can be both short and long-term.
How do you know if you've sunburned your eyes? The symptoms include redness or irritation, tearing, pain, a gritty feeling almost like there's sand in your eyes, blurry vision and temporary vision loss (called photokeratitis, or snow blindness). People often mistakenly believe they've gotten too much chlorine or salt water in their eyes when in fact they've sunburned their eyes.
How do you tell the difference? "With sunburned eyes, you will get that gritty, sandy feeling. When you've gotten too much chlorine or ocean water in your eyes, you may have some discomfort, but no pain," says Jan Bergmanson, OD, PhD, professor at the UH College of Optometry and founding director of the Texas Eye Research and Technology Center. Bergmanson also stresses, "Exposure to UV radiation is cumulative over time and puts you at a greater risk of developing eye and vision disorders later in life." Those long-term effects can include cataracts, benign growths on the eye, skin cancer of the eyelids and surrounding tissue, and possibly macular degeneration.
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Protecting your eyes is simple. The American Optometric Association recommends you wear good-quality sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim, even on cloudy days. Look for sunglasses that screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light and block at least 95 percent of ultraviolet A and 99 percent ultraviolet B radiation.
What about the color of the lenses? Bergmanson says neutral gray lenses are best (especially when driving) because they reduce light intensity without altering the color of objects. Brown or amber lenses may work better for people who are visually impaired or for athletes because they increase contrast while reducing light intensity.
If you do sunburn your eyes, the best treatment is staying out of the sun and using lubricating eye drops to ease the irritation. The symptoms should go away in a few days to a week. If not, or if the pain is bad and the symptoms get worse, see your eye doctor immediately.
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