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Sun Safety for Your Eyes: How to Avoid Getting Your Eyes Sunburned

While outdoors, most of us use sunscreen to prevent damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. Apart from the skin, UV light can also cause damage to our eyes. Eyes can get ‘sunburned’ when exposed to UV rays. What are the signs and symptoms of sunburned eyes, and can this be prevented? Keep reading to know more about the treatment of sunburned eyes.

Can your eyes get sunburned?

The UV light can cause damage to the skin and result in skin sunburn. Similar to skin sunburn, the UV rays can also cause eye sunburn or photokeratitis. Photokeratitis is an eye condition that affects the cornea, the outer transparent layer of the eye. Photokeratitis is derived from the words 'photo' meaning light and 'keratitis' meaning inflammation of the cornea. Photokeratitis is also referred to as solar ophthalmia, snow blindness, or flash burns.

Causes of photokeratitis

The most common cause of photokeratitis is the exposure to the UV rays. The UV rays are found in sunlight and other light sources such as nightclub lighting, gymnasium lamps, sparks during welding, and tanning beds. Hence, photokeratitis often presents itself as an occupational hazard among lab workers, people in the leisure industry, welders, and those working at tanning salons. Snow reflections can also cause photokeratitis. As such, skiers, mountaineers, and individuals who live in snowy regions are prone to eye sunburn.

During the pandemic, many people used UV lamps as a disinfection method. Improper use of these lamps increased cases of photokeratitis.

How to prevent eyes from sunburn

Since photokeratitis is considered an ophthalmic emergency, it is prudent to take preventative measures. A few simple precautions can help prevent our eyes from getting sunburned:

Wear UV-blocking glasses

Wearing UV-blocking sunglasses can help in preventing photokeratitis. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has specified standards for the lenses and frames of the sunglasses. Ensure that the sunglasses fit your face well and adequately cover your eyes.

Avoid direct sun

While working outdoors, if possible, avoid direct sun. Use beach umbrellas, canopies, or cabanas whenever possible. Use stroller canopies or umbrellas to protect babies and toddlers from the sun.

Wear a hat

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a wide-brimmed hat made from fabric that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 30 or higher. These hats can protect your eyes from solar UV rays. Also, make sure that the brim of the hat is at least 3 inches wide to keep your eyes protected.

Limit exposure during peak hours

The peak hours of UV radiation are between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Avoid direct sunlight during these times. For instance, schedule outdoor activities such as walking or sports during early mornings or late afternoons.

Check the UV index

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) site provides information about the daily UV index predicted by the National Weather Services. The UV index is a scale from 1 to 11 used to predict daily UV radiations. An interesting rule to gauge UV exposure is the shadow rule. If your shadow is longer than yourself then you have less UV exposure. During the midday, the shadow is shorter than the person, and the UV exposure is high.

How to prevent eye sunburn

Signs your eyes are sunburned

Patients with photokeratitis experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Pain and discomfort
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Blurry vision or temporary loss of vision
  • Watery eyes or excessive tearing
  • Headache
  • Gritty feeling in the eyes
  • Twitching eyelids

Although this condition can affect only one eye, usually the signs and symptoms are observed in both eyes. Often facial skin sunburn is also observed in patients with photokeratitis.

How long does eye sunburn last?

Eye sunburn causes the outer layer of cells on the cornea to shed, leaving the corneal nerves exposed and damaged. Since these cells can regenerate, this condition usually heals within 2–3 days with proper treatment.

How to heal sunburned eyes

Since photokeratitis heals within 2–3 days with proper treatment, seeking treatment from a healthcare provider in the early stages is crucial. Consult your doctor as soon as the symptoms appear. Here we provide an overview of first aid and routine medical management for sunburned eyes.

First aid treatment

As a safe first aid treatment, you can take the following measures:

  • Remove contact lenses if you use them, and avoid wearing them until your eyes are completely healed.
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes even though you may experience an itchy sensation.
  • Stay away from direct sun or the source of UV rays. Use cold compresses to soothe the eye.
  • If your doctor has prescribed you artificial tears, you can continue using them.

Medical treatment

Treatment for eye sunburn focuses on managing symptoms and promoting corneal healing. The disease is usually not complex, and most patients heal completely. Oral painkillers can help in reducing pain and discomfort. Doctors can recommend artificial tears to help the cornea heal. In some cases, doctors may prescribe eyedrops or antibiotic eye ointments such as erythromycin to avoid secondary infections.

Potential complications

Prolonged exposure to UV rays can cause other ophthalmic complications such as pterygium (an overgrowth of tissue from the inner corner of the eye to the iris), erythema (redness), and certain types of cancers. When diagnosed early, these complications can be treated without any permanent damage to the eye. Visit your doctor for a periodic eye checkup if you have had prolonged UV exposure.

In a nutshell, eye sunburn or photokeratitis is a condition that affects the cornea causing severe pain. Typically, ultraviolet rays from the sun or other sources such as lab UV lamps cause photokeratitis. This condition can usually resolve within 2–3 days with proper treatment. Doctors typically prescribe antibiotic ointments and eye drops to treat this condition. Consult your doctor immediately if your eyes hurt after sun exposure. Using sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat can help in preventing eye sunburn.

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