You might be vigilant when it comes to protecting your skin from harmful UV radiation, but are you protecting your eyes, too? “Sunburned eyes” is a condition called photokeratitis. Here’s what causes it, treatments, and how to prevent it with the right sunglasses.
© Westend61/Getty Images The UV light from the sun can burn eyes. Westend61/Getty Images
How do you get photokeratitis?
Photokeratitis is often caused by the reflection of the sun off of a surface. One of the most common ways to get photokeratitis is actually from snowsports since the white snow reflects the sun back at your eyes. This phenomenon is known as snow blindness.
You can also get it from being out on the water, where the sun will reflect back, or even on the beach if the sun is reflecting off the sand. It may also happen from looking directly at the sun, or spending a lot of time outdoors without adequate eye protection.
UV radiation from the sun damages cells and their DNA. This is what causes reactions like sunburn and sun poisoning, but UV rays can also damage your eyes if you aren’t protecting them with sunglasses, hats, staying in the shade, or a combination of these.
Symptoms of photokeratitis
According to Benjamin Bert, MD, ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, the main symptoms of photokeratitis are:
- Blurred vision
- Eyelid twitching
- Sensitivity to light
- Gritty feeling in the eye
- Inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the mucous membrane covering the whites of the eyes
Bert notes that in more serious cases, you might not be able to open your eyes, and your vision may be severely impaired. If you’re experiencing those symptoms, it’s important to call your doctor and seek care, especially if this is going on for longer than a day.
In these severe cases, your doctor will assess the damage and possibly prescribe a mild steroid to decrease inflammation. Prescription eye drops are another option.
However, if your case is less severe and does not impact your ability to open your eyes or see, you may be advised to wait it out and avoid the sun until your eyes have healed.
How long does photokeratitis last?
Depending on the severity of the burn, you might have symptoms for anywhere between 6-48 hours.
“It’s just like with sunburns – sometimes it’s a mild burn, and it’ll go away on its own. You just need to take it easy and not get re-exposed,” Bert says.
Like with skin sunburns, once you’ve noticed symptoms, it’s too late. Cell damage has already been done. That’s why it’s crucial that you get indoors into a dark room to rest your eyes as soon as notice symptoms of photokeratitis.
If you are wearing contacts, take them out to prevent further irritation. A cold compress over your eyes can help relieve discomfort, as can anti-inflammatory over-the-counter pain relievers like Ibuprofen.
Long term health risks
A sunburn typically heals in a couple of days, whether it’s on the eyes or skin. However, according to Bert, photokeratitis adds to the cumulative damage that’s occurring to the eye throughout life – especially if you get photokeratitis multiple times. UV damage adds up over time, causing possible long term issues.
According to Bert, these chronic health risks include:
- Accelerated aging of the skin around the eyes
- Aging of the eyes themself, which leads to vision loss problems earlier in life
- Developing cataracts
- Benign but permanent growths in the eye such as pterygium or pinguecula. However, if these grow big enough and cover part of the cornea, they can impair your vision.
- Ocular surface squamous neoplasia (cancer of the surface of the eye)
- Ocular melanoma, another type of cancer, which can occur on the surface or in the eye
Prevention of burnt corneas and other eye problems
The easiest way to protect your eyes from sunburn is to wear sunglasses, says Bert. However, not all sunglasses are created equal.
Here’s what to look for in sunglasses to best protect yourself from photokeratitis:
- Built-in UV protection. The best type of UV protection is “100% UV protection” or “UV400” which blocks 99-100% of UV light.
- Polarized lenses, which can minimize the impact of reflected light.
- Bigger frames to protect more surface area
If you’re shopping at a specialty sunglasses or glasses store, ask the sales associate for help with finding these features.
Smaller frames provide less protection, not just from the front, but also from the top, bottom, and sides. Bigger frames offer more surface area protection head-on, but still, you are dealing with UV rays coming in from the side, which can still cause damage.
Bert recognizes that while they may not be the most fashion-forward, wrap-around style full-coverage sunglasses provide the most coverage because they don’t allow UV rays to get in through the sides.
To be extra safe, especially if you’re wearing smaller frames, wear a hat to create some additional shade for your eyes, or sit under an umbrella.