It’s summer, and everyone is looking forward to those hard-earned vacation days spent at the shore or at some exotic beach in the Caribbean. It is the season of travel, outdoor sports, and family picnics. These activities, while fun, can leave us exposed to direct sunlight for longer periods of time, and we have to exercise some caution so we can diminish its adverse effects on our health.
Most of us are familiar with sun exposure’s detrimental effects on the skin and the increased risk of melanoma, so as an eye doctor, I’d like to focus instead on how such exposure can cause eye damage to varying degrees — and what we can do to protect ourselves. Here’s the advice we at Outlook Eyecare give our patients in the Princeton and Hamilton, NJ area.
How the Sun Damages Eyes
The sun emits UV-A, UV-B, UV-C, infrared, and blue light radiation.
Normally, our body makes good use of these rays as they stimulate the production of vitamin D, which strengthens our bones, immune system, and blood cell formation. Plus light helps our body regulate our sleep/wake cycle. But as with most good things, there are considerable side effects deriving from prolonged and unprotected exposure to sunlight.
Research-based evidence has shown that UV-B radiation has caused cataracts, both in high-intensity, short-term exposure (as with lasers) in animals and in chronic exposure in humans. As shown in the picture below, due to its shorter wavelength (280 nanometers to 380 nanometers), UV radiation primarily affects the front of the eye where cataracts are formed.
Research has also linked blue light radiation with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Due to its longer wavelength (450 to 495 nanometers), blue light affects the back of the eye, mostly therefore causing damage to the retina, both in acute and chronic exposure. In today’s world, we use digital devices and modern energy-saving lighting that emit a high level of blue light. Our exposure to this light when accumulated over time will lead to an increase in AMD.
Here are some other conditions caused by overexposure:
- Photokeratitis occurs after overexposure to sunlight, mainly affecting people along the beach, snow, and sand because these environments are highly reflective.
- Pterygium is a wedge-shaped, benign, elevated tissue in the conjuctiva (clear lining that covers the white part of the eye). Its cause is thought to be exposure to UV light, and it could grow to cover the pupil (black center of the eye). Surgical removal is recommended prior to reaching the pupil.
- Pinguecula is a yellow-white conjuctival lesion caused by UV light that does not significantly harm vision but is cosmetically unpleasant for patients.
- Solar or macular retinopathy consists of retinal damage due to high-energy light exposure. It occurs from viewing a solar eclipse, sunbathing, high-energy laser treatments, or mental disturbances due to neurological disorders. Most of the vision is recuperated without treatment over 1 to 2 months, but recovery could last up to a year. Prognosis depends on time of exposure and visual acuity prior to exposure.
Learn how the sun can damage the eyes and what you can do to prevent it.
How to Protect Yourself
Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself from sun overexposure:
- Do not miss your yearly eye exams. A good doctor can see early signs of the conditions and the team of professionals at Outlook Eyecare will conduct a thourough exam of your eyes.
- Wear the right contact lenses and glasses. There are many brands out there that offer blue light and UV protection. See your Outlook Eyecare team for options such as Crizal® Prevencia™ for your everyday eyewear and Xperio UV™ for your sunglasses needs.
- Wear a hat, and try to avoid the “danger zone.” 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the summer. 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. in the winter.
Do you have other tips or strategies for protecting your eyes from the sun? Share them in a comment below.