When we think of sunburn, we usually imagine red, painful skin caused by too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. However, many people might not realize that our eyes can suffer a similar fate. This condition, often referred to as photokeratitis, is essentially a sunburn of the eye. Let’s delve into what photokeratitis is, how it happens, and what you can do to protect your eyes.

What is Photokeratitis?

Photokeratitis is a painful eye condition caused by exposure to UV rays. It occurs when the cornea, the clear front surface of the eye, gets damaged. The condition is similar to having a sunburn on your skin but affects your eyes instead. It’s commonly caused by sunlight reflecting off surfaces like water, sand, snow, or even concrete.

Symptoms of Photokeratitis

The symptoms of photokeratitis can appear within a few hours of exposure and can include:

Pain or redness in the eyes: This occurs as the UV rays cause inflammation and irritation to the cornea and surrounding tissues.

A feeling of grittiness or that something is in the eye: Damaged corneal cells can create a sensation similar to having sand in your eyes.

Blurred vision: Swelling and damage to the cornea can temporarily distort your vision, making it difficult to see clearly.

Tearing or watery eyes: Your eyes may produce more tears in an attempt to soothe the irritation and wash away any perceived foreign bodies.

Sensitivity to light: Known as photophobia, this symptom makes it uncomfortable to look at bright lights or be in well-lit areas.

Swollen eyes or eyelids: Inflammation from the UV damage can cause your eyelids to become puffy and tender.

Temporary loss of vision in severe cases: Extensive damage to the cornea can lead to a temporary decrease in vision, which typically resolves as the cornea heals.

These symptoms are typically temporary but can be very uncomfortable. In most cases, symptoms resolve within 24 to 48 hours, but it’s crucial to take immediate steps to alleviate discomfort and prevent further damage.  Read on to discover the best way to approach photokeratitis.

How Does UV Light Damage the Eyes?

Just like skin, our eyes are vulnerable to UV radiation. The cornea and conjunctiva (the membrane covering the white part of the eye) can absorb these rays, leading to inflammation and damage. Prolonged exposure without protection can increase the risk of developing more severe eye conditions like cataracts or macular degeneration over time.

Types of UV Radiation

Understanding the types of UV radiation can help you better protect your eyes:

  1. UVA Rays: These rays can penetrate deep into the eye and are associated with long-term eye damage.
  2. UVB Rays: These rays are more likely to cause immediate damage to the surface of the eye and are the main cause of photokeratitis.
  3. UVC Rays: These are the most dangerous but are mostly absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere and do not reach us.

Who is at Risk?

Anyone who spends extended periods outdoors without eye protection is at risk of developing photokeratitis. This includes:

  • Beachgoers and swimmers, due to the reflection of sunlight off water
  • Snow enthusiasts, as snow reflects UV rays intensely (a condition often referred to as snow blindness)
  • People who spend time in high-altitude areas, where UV radiation is stronger
  • Welders and other professionals who work with intense light sources without proper eye protection

Preventing Photokeratitis

Prevention is key when it comes to photokeratitis. Here are some tips to help protect your eyes:

Wear Sunglasses: Choose sunglasses that block 100% of UVA and UVB rays. Wraparound styles offer additional protection by preventing UV rays from entering from the sides.

Use Protective Gear: If you’re skiing, snowboarding, or involved in other high-risk activities, wear goggles with UV protection.

Stay Informed: Be aware of the UV index in your area and take extra precautions when it’s high.

Wear a Hat: A broad-brimmed hat can reduce UV exposure by up to 50%.

Use Sunscreen: While it doesn’t protect your eyes directly, using sunscreen on your face can prevent UV rays from reflecting into your eyes.

Long-Term Effects of UV Exposure on Eyes

Chronic exposure to UV rays without proper protection can lead to more severe eye conditions, including:

  • Cataracts: Clouding of the eye’s lens, leading to decreased vision.
  • Macular Degeneration: Damage to the retina, which affects central vision.
  • Pterygium: A growth on the white part of the eye that can extend onto the cornea and affect vision.
  • Photoconjunctivitis: Inflammation of the conjunctiva, similar to sunburn but affecting the clear membrane that lies over the whites of your eyes.

What to Do If You Suspect Photokeratitis

If you suspect you have photokeratitis, it’s important to give your eyes a break and avoid further UV exposure. Move indoors or to a shaded area and remove contact lenses if you wear them. Be sure to use eye drops to lubricate your eyes before removing your contact lenses. Using artificial tears can help lubricate your eyes, and avoiding rubbing them will prevent further irritation. Applying a cold compress can reduce swelling and pain, and over-the-counter pain relievers can alleviate discomfort. Most importantly, seek medical attention if symptoms are severe or do not improve within a day or two.

Vision Care Direct can play a crucial role in managing and preventing photokeratitis. Our comprehensive vision plans include regular eye exams, which are essential for early detection and prevention of eye conditions. With access to quality eyewear that offers UV protection, our members can enjoy their outdoor activities without compromising their eye health. Having a vision plan ensures you get the right glasses and protective gear to keep your eyes safe from harmful UV rays.

Seeking Professional Care

While photokeratitis often resolves on its own, it’s essential to seek professional care if symptoms persist. An eye care professional can provide treatments such as antibiotic drops to prevent infection and pain relief medications. Regular eye exams are crucial to maintaining overall eye health and detecting any long-term effects of UV exposure early. Vision Care Direct’s extensive network of independent optometrists is dedicated to providing top-notch care to ensure your vision stays healthy.

Photokeratitis is a painful reminder of the importance of protecting our eyes from the sun’s harmful UV rays. By taking simple preventive measures, you can enjoy the outdoors while keeping your eyes safe. Remember, your vision is precious, and taking steps to protect it can prevent serious long-term damage. If you have concerns about your eye health or need more information on protective eyewear, consult with your optometrist.

For more tips on eye care and protection, visit Vision Care Direct and learn how we can help you maintain healthy vision for a lifetime. Our vision plans are designed to provide you with the eye care and protection you need to prevent conditions like photokeratitis, ensuring that you and your family can enjoy clear and healthy vision.