Did you know that your eyes can get sunburned? It’s called photokeratitis, and here’s what you need to watch for at all times of the year.

When you think about sunburn, you might think about slathering on sunblock before you hit the beach or the pool during the summer or while on vacation. But there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about sunburn every day of the year, and not just when it comes to your skin.

That’s because your eyes can get sunburned, as well. The threat of sunburn exists all year long — in winter as well as during the summer, on sunny days and even when there is plenty of cloud cover. Here are the things you need to know about protecting your eyes from the sun.


Photokeratitis: Causes & Symptoms

When eyes become severely sunburned, it’s called photokeratitis. When overexposed to UV rays, there are several parts of the eye that can be affected and inflamed, causing painful symptoms.

  • Your cornea (the transparent covering of your eye)
  • Your conjunctiva (a mucus membrane that protects the whites of the eye and the inner eyelids)
  • Your lens (which is located behind the iris and focuses light on the retina)
  • Your retina (the thin, light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye)

The resulting eye damage can be temporary or more long-lasting, and can even lead to major eye diseases, including cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and even cancer of the eyelid.

If you’ve had swelling or redness of your eyes or blurred vision after spending too much time in the sun, it’s possible you experienced sunburned eyes. Although rare, photokeratitis can even cause temporary vision loss or color vision loss.

Other symptoms of photokeratitis include:

  • Eye pain
  • Twitching of the eyelid
  • A gritty feeling, like something is in your eye
  • Headache
  • Watery eyes or excess tears
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Seeing halos or rings of light around objects


When to watch for sunburned eyes

There are a few scenarios when you and your family members may be more at risk for sunburning their eyes. Here’s when you should be extra vigilant:

Playing outside:
Kids love to play outdoors, and they may not wear sunglasses when hitting the park, playground, or even the backyard. Concrete surfaces, often found on sport courts or playgrounds, can reflect the sun’s rays into the eyes. The same goes for water play: The risk of sunburn for kids and adults increases in the pool or lake which reflects UV light back into the eyes.

Snow days:
A day skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, or participating in another winter sport can put your eyes at risk. That’s because eyes are exposed to a double hit of UV light: from the sun overhead and the light’s glare from the snow. Snow blindness, a rare form of photokeratitis, can occur when UV radiation is reflected by snow and ice.

Visiting a tanning salon:
Tanning beds are popular throughout the year, but especially in the colder months for those living at higher latitudes. The ultraviolet light emitted by tanning beds can be extremely hurtful to your eyes. This also goes for other non-sun sources of UV rays, including mercury vapor lamps, halogen desk lamps, and photographic flood lamps.

At altitude or in a sunny place:
If you live or spend time at high altitude doing activities such as hiking or climbing, you are at risk due to the greater exposure to UV rays. This is also the case if you live in a sun-soaked part of the country.


What to do if you get sunburned eyes

Depending on the severity of your UV exposure, symptoms can last for several hours or up to 48 hours. If your symptoms are extremely painful or you experience vision loss, contact your eye doctor.

Here are some other actions you can take at home to help your eyes feel better:

  • Try over-the-counter pain relievers for pain or headache.
  • If you wear contact lenses, switch to glasses while your eyes get better.
  • Don’t wear makeup, false eyelashes, or eyelash extensions, all of which can irritate your eyes.
  • Use eye drops or artificial tears to moisturize your eyes.
  • Place cool compresses over your eyes at intervals.
  • Don’t rub or scratch your eyes.


How to prevent photokeratitis

Always wear UV protection, whether it’s goggles when swimming or skiing, or sunglasses anytime you’re outdoors. Make sure your kiddos are equipped with the sun protection their eyes need, too.

Remember that UV exposure — and the damage it causes to your eyes and vision — adds up over time. But so does prevention. Wearing sunglasses and other protective eyewear can prevent eye conditions and safeguard your vision over the long term.

We’re here to help you protect your eyes and your vision. From choosing the best prescription sunglasses and other protective eyewear, to keeping your eye exams current, we’re ready to serve you. Contact us for an appointment today.

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