With summer making its official debut on June 21, now is a good time to spread the word that the sun – a fundamental, life-fueling force – also poses a serious threat to the health of your eyes. While skin-cancer awareness has increased significantly in recent years, the average person is largely unaware that the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can permanently damage one’s eyes.
Prevent Blindness America has its eye on educating the public regarding this important subject, and promotes the month of May as Ultraviolet Awareness Month.
Cancers caused by the sun aren’t limited to the skin. In fact, several skin cancers – including basal cell carcinoma, melanomas, and squamous cell carcinomas – can occur on the eyelids, on the surface of the eye, and even inside the eye.
Overexposure to UV rays also can result in eye diseases, including cataracts (a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye). These same rays additionally can be responsible for growths on the eye. Ptergium, which is a growth of pink, fleshy tissue on the white of the eye, is one example. Ptergium most often presents in young adults, particularly among those who spend longs hours in the sun, such as farmers, fisherman, skiers, and surfers.
Another threat takes the form of sunlight reflected off sand or water, as this can result in photokeratitis (a burning of the cornea, often referred to as snow blindness).
Those at Increased Risk
While everyone – at any age – is susceptible to the sun damaging their eyes, several factors can increase that risk. The risk is highest among those who have:
- light-colored eyes (blue, green or hazel);
- retinal dystrophy (chronic and disabling disorders of visual function);
- had cataract surgery in which newer, UV-absorbent intraocular lenses were not implanted;
- undergone photodynamic therapy for age-related macular degeneration (a breakdown of the eye’s macula);
- been prescribed photosensitizing drugs, including antibiotics, birth-control pills, estrogen, phenothiazine, and psoralens.
Studies also have shown that taking anti-inflammatory pains relievers – such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium – can heighten your sensitivity to the sun.
Reducing your Risk
Before heading out into the summer sun, take these precautions to reduce your risk of damaging your eyes:
- Sport sunglasses – Not only is it essential to wear sunglasses outdoors, but it’s crucial that said sunglasses block 100 percent of the sun’s UV rays. Always buy sunglasses with this feature that’s sometimes labeled “UV absorption up to 400 nm” or “UV 400” – both of which mean the same thing as 100-percent UV absorption. According to a survey by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, only 50 percent of people who wear sunglasses check the UV rating before buying.
- Additionally, select sunglasses that are of the wraparound variety. Studies have shown that enough UV rays enter around ordinary eyeglass frames to reduce the benefits of protective lenses. Large-framed, wraparound sunglasses protect your eyes from all angles. Also, even if you have UV-blocking contact lenses, you still need to wear sunglasses.
- Wear hats – If you’re going to be outside for any period longer than just a few minutes, it’s absolutely advised that you wear a broad-brimmed hat.
- Look away – Never look directly at the sun. Looking directly at the sun – including during an eclipse – can result in solar retinopathy (damage to the eye’s retina from solar radiation).
And don’t forget that little ones – babies as well as children – are especially sensitive to the sun, so every adult precaution also applies to those in the pint-sized category.
Take the worry out of your summer by following these simple precautions, and have fun! And remember to get your eyes checked regularly by an ophthalmologist.