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Sunny days are the best, but all those rays can seriously mess with your eye health.
Think back to grade-school science. Remember the experiment where the teacher trots the class outside and hands everyone a magnifying glass with a goal of concentrating enough sunlight on a leaf to light it on fire?
Fun stuff for antsy kids. Not so cool for the smoldering leaf.
Just like the poor leaf, your eyes can burn if you look right into the sun—even for a moment or two. Your eye takes that intense light, focuses it, and burns the light-sensitive tissue in the back of your eyeball called the retina. Not great for your eye health!
But here’s the real kicker: You don’t have to be looking straight at it for the sun to hurt your eyes.
“You know how UV rays can damage your skin if you don’t use sunblock? They can also damage the clear skin over the white part of your eye called the conjunctiva and increase your risk of more serious problems if you don’t protect your eyes,” says optometrist Laurie Lesser, O.D.
Thank goodness everyone looks great in sunglasses! Here are the top reasons you need to keep your favorite pair with you at all times to maintain your eye health.
Eye Health Reason #1: Blind Spots
There’s nothing like stepping into the bright sunshine after you’ve been cooped up inside. But just a few seconds of looking directly at the sun is enough to distort or chip away at your vision.
The exposure can bring on a blind spot called solar retinopathy. Permanent vision loss is rare, but it typically takes three to six months for the blind spot to heal. And there’s no real treatment—you just have to stick it out.
The risk goes up on clear days and at high noon—partly because the temptation to look up is harder to resist compared to cloudy days, says Dr. Lesser. “But to be 100 percent safe, don’t stare into the sun ever,” she adds.
Eye Health Reason #2: Snow Blindness
Don’t be fooled by the name. Snow blindness, which is a form of ultraviolet keratitis called photokeratitis, can happen in the driest of deserts and in every season.
It’s a temporary, painful condition that is essentially a sunburn on your corneas. And it’s a real concern for outdoor lovers who spend a lot of time around highly reflective surfaces like sand, snow, ice, or water.
Snow blindness sneaks up on people, with symptoms usually showing up hours later. Along with the pain, your tip-offs include redness, blurry vision, lots of tearing, and a gritty feeling, to name a few. Artificial tears and placing a cool cloth over your eyes can speed relief, but call an eye doctor if you’re in major discomfort.
Eye Health Reason #3: Surfer’s Eye
According to Dr. Lesser, repeated exposure to the sun (and to irritants like wind and sand) can cause unsightly eye growths called pterygium, or surfer’s eye. The origin of the name isn’t clear, although it’s common among Australian surfers—but also among the Eskimo populations who live at high altitude. Go figure.
A ptergyium is a pink, fleshy growth that typically develops in the corner of one or both eyes. It can be (but is not always) preceded by a pinguecula, a yellowish spot or bump that forms on the white of your eye.
“Pinguecula is not a problem so much as it may increase dry eye symptoms, and cosmetically it’s not very pretty,” Dr. Lesser says. “But ptergyium can cause your prescription to change and scar the cornea.”
Eye Health Reasons #4 and #5: Cataracts and Macular Degeneration
Routinely skipping or forgetting to wear sunglasses also increases your chances of developing more serious eye conditions.
In particular, Dr. Lesser calls out cataracts—which can make things look cloudy, foggy, and discolored—and age-related macular degeneration. AMD robs you of your central vision and your ability to see fine details.
Right now, there’s no cure for the most common type of AMD. Cataracts are often treated with a new eyeglass prescription and lifestyle changes—like adjusting lights and changing your driving habits—until it becomes too difficult to keep up with your daily routines. Then surgery is in order.
3 People Who Need to Be Extra Careful for Their Eye Health
You’re at risk for UV damage if you spend any time outdoors. Which means we all need to take protective measures. However, some people need to be extra careful. That could mean you if …
- You have a family history of cataracts or macular degeneration.
- Have blue or green eyes. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), studies have shown that those with light-colored eyes are at a higher risk for rare cancers like melanoma of the iris. That’s because they have less melanin in their irises.
- You're taking certain medications. Several prescription drugs can make you more sensitive to UV rays, including antibiotics, certain birth control pills, and some drugs for psoriasis. Dr. Lesser suggests checking the patient information that comes with your medications to see if what you’re taking can increase sun sensitivity—or double-check with the pharmacist.
Fortunately, protecting your eyes is pretty simple. Wear only sunglasses that block 100% of both UVA and UVB radiation—look for the words “100% UV protection” or “UV 400,” which mean the same thing. And remember, if you have UV-blocking contact lenses, you still need to wear sunglasses, because they only protect a portion of your eye.