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Can the Sun Burn Your Eyes?

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A teenage girl sitting on a railing, using her hand to block sun rays from her eyes

The summer means lots of sunlight. And lots of sunlight means lots of sunburns. When we think of sunburns, we usually think of skin damage. But don’t forget the other vulnerable parts of your body you need to take care of, such as your eyes.

That’s right! The sun can burn your eyes just as quickly as it can your shoulders. This condition is known as photokeratitis, and it occurs when the eyes are exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or other light sources. Like sunburns on the skin, repeated overexposure can lead to more severe eye conditions.

So, grab your most stylish sunglasses and learn about protecting your eyes this summer!

Sources of UV Radiation

When it comes to UV radiation, most people’s first thought is the sun. Sunlight is the main source of UV rays, but it’s not the only one. You can be exposed to UV light even if you’re indoors from lightbulbs, lasers, and tanning beds. Even welding can affect your eyes and skin.

You need to be careful when you’re outside, even if it looks like a cloudy day. UV radiation can still make it through the clouds and take you by surprise, and it can also bounce off water, sand, or snow, doubling the amount of exposure to your eyes.

Symptoms of Sunburned Eyes

UV radiation usually damages the front of your eyes, including the cornea (the front of your eye) and the conjunctiva (the clear membranes covering the white of the eye and the inside of your eyelids).

However, in some cases, UV radiation can penetrate deeper, damaging the lens or the back of your eye, called the retina.

Symptoms of sunburned eyes can range from mild to severe, depending on the exposure. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain in the cornea
  • Red eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • A gritty, sand-like feeling
  • Headaches
  • Watery eyes
  • Eyelid swelling or twitching

While many of these symptoms should fade in a day or two, there are signs you should look out for that could indicate more severe damage, such as:

  • Halos around bright lights
  • Sensitivity to lights
  • Dimmed, fuzzy, blurred, or distorted vision
  • Reduced night vision
  • Dark areas in the middle of your vision

If you notice these symptoms and recently spent a lot of time outside or around any other source of UV radiation, check with your optometrist. We can examine your eyes and look for UV damage.

Long-Term Sun Exposure

UV light is crucial in helping your body produce vitamin D, an essential vitamin for staying healthy. But UV light also causes cell damage. Just like getting a sunburn on your skin, exposure can add up and increase your risk of developing eye diseases like:

  • Cataracts
  • Macular degeneration
  • Conjunctival cancers
  • Melanoma on the eye or eyelid
A young woman smiling towards the camera and wearing sunglasses to block the sun from her eyes

Treating Sunburned Eyes

Ideally, sunburned eyes will heal on their own after a few days. During this time, focus on relieving pain and the more frustrating symptoms. Your optometrist might recommend pain medication or antibiotic eye drops if the damage is severe enough, but here are some methods you can use at home for relief:

  • Don’t rub your eyes
  • Stay in a dark room
  • Place a cool, damp washcloth over your eyes
  • Remove your contact lenses if you wear them
  • Use hydrating eye drops (artificial tears)

Preventing Eye Sunburns

Sunburned eyes are irritating and painful, so it’s important to stop them at the source. Being proactive and protecting your eyes, especially during midday when UV radiation is the strongest, can protect your eyes and keep them safe through the years:

  • Wear sunglasses that block 99–100% UV light year-round, not just on the hottest days.
  • Don’t be fooled by clouds, as UV light can reach your eyes even on a cloudy day.
  • Wear a hat with a brim at least 3 inches wide.
  • Be careful while on the slopes, as UV intensity increases at high altitudes.
  • Be aware of the light reflecting off water, sand, and snow. It’s best to wear polarised sunglasses. 
  • Stay in the shade during midday when the sun is the most intense.

Eye Protection with Experience in North York

You don’t want to miss those summer days, but you can’t let your eyes go unprotected. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose! At York Mills Eye Care, we have a wide selection of stylish and protective sunglasses that can keep those UV rays on the beach, not your eyes. And, if something does happen, we can examine your eyes and recommend treatments.

Sunlight can revitalize your body and mind, so don’t fear it. Just make sure you do your best to protect your eyes. Come in for a visit and let our knowledgeable team find the ideal pair of shades for you!

Written by Dr. Vagners

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