Are Sunburned Eyes a Real Thing?

Warm weather is finally here, and people of all ages are heading outdoors for summer activities.  We all know the importance of sunscreen and its benefit for blocking harmful ultraviolet rays, but what about our eyes?  Do we need to protect them?  Yes, always.

Whether you are hiking and lounging on the beach, your eyes can experience sunburn. If your eyes are overexposed to intense UV light, they can suffer photokeratitis. Photokeratitis (also known as UV keratitis) is an intensely painful condition that can temporarily impair your vision and can come about in as little as two hours of intense exposure.  Besides blurry vision, other symptoms include “red eyes, a foreign body sensation or gritty feeling in the eyes, extreme sensitivity to light and excessive tearing.”

Since the intensity of UV radiation increases with increasing altitude, if you hike or or live in areas of higher elevation, you are at a slightly higher risk for photokeratitis. It has been said that for every 1,000 feet we climb in elevation the amount of UV radiation that reaches our eyes increases by 4 percent.  Additionally, snow can appear at higher altitudes, reflecting even more harmful rays. This condition is often called snow blindness.

Forget the snow.  It is summer and you want the beach and water.  Not so fast.  Sand reflects 25 percent of UV light and water has the potential to reflect up to 100 percent.  What can we do?

If you do experience photokeratitis, remove your contacts immediately if you wear them.  You should stay in a dimly lit room and avoid bright light both real and artificial.  Apply cool compresses over your eyes.  Lubricate your eyes with preservative free artificial tears.  You should also take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory.

The good news is that “symptoms may last from 6 to 24 hours, but they usually disappear within 48 hours…[but remember] the longer you’re exposed to UV light, the more severe your symptoms might be.”

Preventing eye sunburn is important.  Be sure your sunglasses properly fit your face and offer enough UV protection.  If you wear contacts, consider investing in a pair of prescription sunglasses.

Summers are supposed to be carefree.  Keep them that way by wearing sunglasses whenever you venture outdoors.  If you do think you have eye sunburn, get it checked out promptly by your eye doctor.

Photo credit: Lindsay Lenard, Unsplash


Dr. Gail Correale
1600 Stewart Ave. Suite 108
Westbury, New York 11590

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