Celebrate UV light safety month by learning how to protect your eyes from UV light damage
Summer means more time outside in the sun. While most people know to protect their skin with sunscreen, many forget the importance of protecting their eyes from UV light damage.
Over-exposure to the sun’s UV rays can cause visual problems. However, patients can keep their eyes safe by wearing the proper eyewear and learning basic precautions.
UV light is a type of ultraviolet radiation. Due to its small wavelengths, UV light is undetectable to the human eye. The sun is the main source of UV light.
There are three types of UV light. They are categorized by their wavelength and can cause varying degrees of damage to the human skin and eyes:
Have the longest wavelength and emit the least energy. These rays can damage the macula, a part of the retina at the back of your eye, and affect central vision.
Have a shorter wavelength and emit more energy. UV-B impacts the front parts of the eye — like the lens and cornea. Because these rays produce more energy, they have more harmful potential than UV-A rays.
UV-C rays have the shortest wavelength and emit the most energy. Most of these rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, but man-made objects such as lights, torches, and lasers emit this form of light. This is the strongest type of UV light and is most damaging to the eyes.
UV light penetrates the eye tissue more than visible light. This can cause several problems in the eye, especially with prolonged exposure during a short time period.
There are a number of eye conditions linked to UV light damage.
Prolonged UV exposure can modify the lens protein. This can lead to the formation of cataracts — the clouding of your eye’s natural lens. Over time cataracts can cause vision to blur and deteriorate.
Overexposure to UV light increases the likelihood of cancer around the eyelid. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are linked to UV light exposure.
UV light damage can contribute to Pterygium — a growth of pinkish tissue on the inner corner of the eye. This tissue starts small, but if left untreated, can grow and cover the pupil and affect vision.
This condition is sometimes referred to as “sunburn of the eye.” It is caused by high levels of UV-B exposure. Symptoms of Photokeratitis can include redness in the eye, foreign body sensations, and sensitivity to light.
Unlike other sun-related conditions, Photokeratitis typically clears up on its own in a few days.
Just as sunscreen can protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays, there are several ways to protect your eyes from prolonged UV exposure.
Sunglasses provide the best protection against UV light damage. When selecting a pair of sunglasses, find ones optimized for UV protection.
Make sure the glasses provide 99 to 100% UV or UV400 protection and that they block both UV-A and UV-B rays. Patients should also choose glasses that stay in place and fully cover their eyes.
Certain glasses may be optimized for specific outdoor activities. For instance, polarized lenses work better for activities around water. Wrap-around glasses and goggles work better for activities like yard work that cause flying debris.
A nice pair of sunglasses combined with a broad-brimmed hat provide even more protection from UV light damage. The hat's brim provides additional shade that shields the eyes from the sun.
UV rays from the sun are strongest at certain points in the day. When possible, patients should avoid outdoor activities when the sun is at its peak. This is typically later in the morning and early in the afternoon, between 10am and 4pm.
If patients are participating in outdoor activities during these peak times, they should seek shade when possible.
Looking directly at the sun damages the retina and can cause a serious injury known as solar retinopathy. Avoid looking directly at the sun, especially during hours of peak intensity.
The sun’s natural light is not the only source of UV light damage. The UV light found in indoor tanning beds can cause serious harm to the eyes and skin.
In certain cases, prevention may not be possible, and patients may need treatment for UV light damage. The type of treatment they receive will depend on the condition caused or aggravated by UV light.
For instance, a serious cataract or pterygium may need to be treated with the appropriate surgical procedure. On the other hand, a doctor may prescribe eye drops to treat a less serious condition like photokeratitis.
If a patient wants to know which UV light damage treatment is right for them, they should contact their eye doctor for a recommendation.
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