During the sunny summer months we make sure to apply sunscreen and sport our shades on a regular basis, but Dr. Francisco Burgos of Katzen Eye Group says that we should be wearing those same sunglasses in the winter time too. Dr. Burgos, who acts as Katzen Eye Group’s director of refractive surgery services and comprehensive eye care, says that ultraviolet light can damage your eyes any time of the year.

How do ultraviolet rays damage your eyes?

UV light is electromagnetic radiation that isn’t visible to the human eye. There are many different types of UV light, and some are more common than others, namely UVA, UVB, and UVC. Fair-skinned individuals are often affected by UV radiation in the form of a sunburn. UV light can also cause damage to the lens, cornea, and retina of the eye. Prolonged exposure to UV light can also accelerate the aging process of the eye itself as well as the tissue located around the eye. Conditions like macular degeneration, cataracts, pterygium (noncancerous growth in the thin, clear tissue of the eye), possible blindness, and pingueculae can be linked to UV light exposure. Exposure to UV rays can also cause photokeratitis, also known as “welder’s flash” and “snow blindness.”

Why are UV rays just as damaging in the summertime as they are in the winter?

Ultraviolet rays, especially UVA, are intense during all daylight hours throughout the year. Air temperatures do not affect the intensity of these rays.

What amount of exposure to UV rays can cause damage?

Energy in UV rays are stronger than those found in infrared rays and visible light, which causes changes in the eye’s molecular structures. These UV rays are especially dangerous to living organisms as they can lead to cell damage or actual changes in genetic code. An inflammatory response of the cornea can occur in as little as 8 to 24 hours after exposure to significant amounts of UV radiation when proper sun protection is not used. Another form of UV radiation ocular damage, known as solar maculopathy or sungazing, can occur in as little as 20 seconds depending on the way sunlight is transmitted. Ocular damage can occur over a long duration of time. Conditions like pingueculae, pterygium, and cataracts develop slowly over time.

How you can protect your eyes

Hats and sunglasses are the most common ways to protect your eyes from UV radiation. Even in the winter months you should be wearing sunglasses for protection. Make sure those sunglasses are clearly labeled as offering UV protection. Skiers at high altitudes, boaters, and beachgoers must also be aware that they are at a higher risk for damage from UV rays.

A landmark study on how UV radiation affects the eyes was conducted amongst Chesapeake Bay watermen and it found that those who wore sunglasses had a lower incidence of cataract development. Those watermen who wore hats with wide brims also had a lower incidence of cataracts and those watermen who wore BOTH sunglasses and hats with brims had the lowest incidence of cataract development. The study demonstrated the importance of protecting eyes against UV light to minimize the risk of cataracts.

How are eyes treated for UV damage?

Photokeratitis is commonly treated with topical corticosteroids, antibiotics, heavy lubrication, and avoidance or limited exposure to sunlight until the condition is resolved. When cataracts become significant enough to affect normal day-to-day activities, they can be surgically removed. In most instances and intraocular lens can be implanted to restore visual function. A pterygium may require surgical removal if it becomes significant enough to result in visual changes. A pingueculae usually requires a more palliative treatment and rarely requires surgical intervention; sun protection and lubrication are commonly used to treat this condition.

Can too much exposure to UV rays cause blindness?

While some forms of damage that occurs from UV exposure are treatable, there are forms that can lead to permanent vision damage and even blindness. Solar maculopathy is not reversible and its effects are akin to those of age-related macular degeneration.