By Rebecca Taylor, M.D.
Summer has finally arrived, which means the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays are the strongest they’ve been all year. Unprotected overexposure to these rays can burn the eyes’ corneas and cause painful, temporary blindness. To prevent this risk, Tennessee ophthalmologists − medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis, medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases and conditions – urge you to wear sunglasses and hats when enjoying time outdoors.
Many years of unprotected exposure to the sun without eye protection can contribute to cataracts and macular degeneration and even lead to tumors that may require surgical removal. A lesser-known danger of sun exposure, however, is the more immediate risk of sunburned eyes or photokeratitis. If you have light colored eyes, you may be at increased risk for sunburned eyes because they have less pigmentation in multiple layers of the eye than darker eyes.
A mild case of photokeratitis can feel as if there is sand stuck in the eyes, which is caused by layers of the cornea peeling following the sunburn. People who have suffered from extreme cases describe the condition as feeling as if their eyeballs are on fire. If you experience these symptoms, see an ophthalmologist right away.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology and the Tennessee Academy of Ophthalmology offer these tips to protect your eyes from both short-term and long-term damage from the sun:
• Go 100 percent! Regardless of the cost or color of your shades, wear sunglasses that offer 100 percent UV protection, make sure they block both UV-A and UV-B rays, and wear them anytime you are outside or driving during the day.
• Choose wrap-around styles. Ideally, your sunglasses should wrap all the way around to your temples, so the sun’s rays can’t enter from the side.
• Top it off. Wear a hat with a three-inch brim to supplement your sunglass protection.
• Beware of reflective surfaces. When at the beach or in the water, remember that UV light reflected off sand, water or pavement can also damage the eyes.
• Meds may increase your sun risk. Medications can cause further sensitivity to light (photosensitivity).
• Don’t rely on contact lenses. Even if you wear contact lenses with UV protection, remember your sunglasses.
• Don’t be fooled by clouds. The sun’s rays can pass through haze and clouds.
• Indoor tanning is worse than outdoor. Tanning beds can produce UV levels up to 100 times stronger than the sun’s rays. The Academy and other medical organizations recommend against use of these beds.
For more information on keeping eyes healthy or to find an ophthalmologist, visit www.geteyesmart.org.
Rebecca Taylor, M.D., practices ophthalmology at Nashville Vision Associates.