Sunlight provides us with lots of benefits: Our bodies need sunlight to produce vitamin D, regulate our sleep cycle, and even ward off depression.
At the same time, too much sun can be bad for us. Most of us know the sun’s UV rays play a major role in skin cancer development, for instance. And it’s not just our skin that can be compromised by the sun’s rays. Our eyes and eyesight are also at risk.
At his practice in Rapid City, South Dakota, Stephen Khachikian, MD, helps his patients protect their eyes and vision with diagnostics, treatments, and education to identify their risks. Here’s what he wants you to know about UV rays and your eyes.
UV rays and your eyes
UV rays are damaging to nearly every part of your eye, from the clear cornea at the front to the light-sensitive retina at the back, as well as the delicate eyelids and skin surrounding the eyes. It doesn’t matter if it’s cloudy, raining, foggy, or even snowing — the sun still produces UV rays, and those rays can penetrate cloud cover.
In addition to “speeding up” the aging of the eye and its structures, too much UV exposure increases your risks of several eye diseases and vision problems.
Cataracts form when proteins clump together inside your cornea, the clear dome of tissue covering your iris and pupils. Cataracts prevent light from entering the eye, causing blurry vision and other symptoms.
Too much sun increases your risk of developing cataracts because it causes additional damage to your eye’s lens. The damage is cumulative, happening slowly over years, which is why it’s important to wear sunglasses whenever you’re outdoors — even during childhood.
The surface of your eye absorbs most of the sun’s UV radiation, increasing the risk of growths on the eye’s outer structures. These growths can be cancerous or benign. Many people who spend a lot of time in the sun develop benign growths called pterygium. Other times, abnormal cancer cells develop on or inside the eye, risking a loss of vision and loss of the eye itself.
In addition to cancers on or in the eye, UV exposure also increases your risk of skin cancers on your eyelids and the tissue surrounding your eyes. Some of these cancers can spread to the clear covering of your eye, the cornea, or structures inside the eye, leading to vision loss or removal of the eye.
Macular degeneration is a major cause of blindness among older Americans, occurring when the central part of the retina — the macula — is irreversibly damaged. Macular degeneration interferes with your central vision, making it hard to read, watch TV, use a computer, or visualize faces. Cumulative UV damage inside your eye is a major cause of macular degeneration and the vision loss it causes.
Photokeratitis is a painful condition that happens after exposure to the sun’s rays — including rays reflected off water, snow, or other surfaces. The good news is, it’s temporary — but it’s also very uncomfortable, and it’s a sign your eyes have had too much UV exposure. Some people compare photokeratitis to a sunburn on your eyes.
Protecting your eyes from UV exposure
One of the best ways to prevent sun damage to your eyes is to avoid being outdoors between 10am-4pm, the period when UV rays are at their strongest. Of course, that’s not always possible, so it’s very important to take additional steps to protect your eyes while you’re out and about.
Sunglasses are, of course, the first line of protection. Wear them wherever you’re outdoors. Choose glasses with large frames, ideally styles that wrap around the eyes to keep UV rays from entering the sides of the glasses. Make sure the sunglasses you choose offer 100% UV protection. Pair your glasses with a broad-brimmed hat.
Never look directly at the sun — even during an eclipse or when the sun is low on the horizon. Doing so can permanently damage the retina, even leading to a type of blindness called solar retinopathy.
The sun isn’t the only source of UV radiation. Tanning beds pose the same risks, so avoid them at all costs.
Learn what else you can do to protect your eyes
Eye protection is a lifetime pursuit, and seeing the eye doctor regularly is an important part of maintaining eye health. To schedule your eye exam, call 605-203-4268 or book an appointment online with Dr. Stephen Khachikian today.