Our sight is one of our most valuable senses, but many people don’t realize the potential threat to them that comes from simply being outside. Wearing protective eyewear may be obvious when carrying out jobs like welding or woodworking, but regularly exposing our eyes to UV light can be just as harmful to the health of our eyes and our vision. The trouble is that, despite being around us all the time, UV radiation is invisible. This makes it easy to underestimate the damage that it can do. It isn’t just the sun that is a source of UV light either. Tanning beds are another source of exposure, although most responsible salons who have them insist that clients wear protective goggles before being allowed to use them.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has named July ‘Ultraviolet Safety Month’ to help raise awareness of the importance of UV protection for the eyes. With summer now in full swing and the risks of UV exposure greater than ever, here’s what you need to know about UV damage and how to protect your eyes.
UV stands for ultraviolet, a type of light energy that is emitted by the sun. There are three types of UV, known as UVA, UVB, and UVC. The ozone layer blocks UVC from reaching the earth, but both UVA and UVB can pass through it.
You may be surprised to learn that after our skin, our eyes are the next part of the body most affected by UV exposure. UVB is best known for causing tanning and sunburn while UVA penetrates the body more deeply, causing signs of aging like leathery or wrinkling skin from within. When it comes to the eyes, UVB is known to cause damage to the covering of the eye – a thin, transparent dome called the cornea, while UVA creates problems for the internal structures of the eye, triggering the premature development of some eye conditions that could have long-term consequences for your vision.
UV light may be around us all the time, but levels are at their highest when the sun’s rays are at their strongest. This means that bright, sunny days, the middle part of the day, high altitudes, and surfaces that reflect sunlight such as snow and sand pose the biggest risks.
There is a range of eye problems that can be caused by UV exposure. These include the following:
Photokeratitis. Also known as corneal sunburn, it is particularly common in people who have spent time in the sunshine near reflective surfaces. It’s painful but does usually go away of its own accord. In some instances, it can cause scarring that permanently affects vision.
Pinguecula and Pterygium. Both of these are names of growth that can occur on the white part of the eye. Pinguecula can be treated with eye drops and other medications. Pterygium growths can progress onto the cornea where they can cause scarring and vision problems. They also need to be removed surgically if they impact on your vision.
Cataracts. Cataracts aren’t just for the older generation. Excessive sun exposure can cause changes to the proteins that are found within the natural lens of the eye, causing them to clump together and create clouds in our vision. Over time, these grow larger until the patient’s vision is completely obscured. The only way to treat them is through lens exchange surgery, where the old lens is taken out and replaced with an artificial one.
Macular degeneration. This condition occurs when the cells of the part of the eye called the macular start to deteriorate – something which occurs more rapidly in people who have experienced excessive UV exposure. This can cause problems with our color vision and our ability to see detail, impacting our ability to do basic tasks such as read, watch television, and drive.
Sunglasses that have been proven to block out at least 95-100% of UV light are the best tool we have for protecting our vision. They should be worn as often as possible when outside to prevent accumulative damage caused by UV exposure.
If you would like more advice on the importance of protecting your eyes from the harmful effects of UV radiation, please contact our eyecare team today.