Can your eyes get sunburned? 10 answers to your biggest summer eye care questions

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Summer is in full swing, which means many of us are spending more time outdoors enjoying the warm weather. While you may be eager to soak up the sun while you can, remember that too much sun exposure can be harmful to your body. We already know to use sunscreen to protect our skin, but what about our eyes?

Can your eyes get sunburned?

Yes, eyes can be ‘sunburned’ in a condition called photokeratitis. This commonly leads to urgent medical visits because of severe eye pain and an abrupt onset of symptoms. Luckily, it is typically self-limiting and resolves without permanent blindness, but any significant eye problem should always be evaluated by an eye doctor to properly diagnose and treat the issue.

Do you still need to wear sunglasses even if it’s cloudy outside?

Yes, it is crucial to wear sunglasses even when it’s cloudy outside. Clouds do not completely block the sun’s rays, so you are still susceptible to UV light and possible sunburn. Although sunlight is usually most intense at midday, your eyes are especially vulnerable to harmful UV light at dawn and dusk because of the direct angle of incoming light. Keep in mind that water, sand and snow can reflect sunlight into your eyes, so wear sunglasses to protect your eyes, even if you are wearing a hat. Also, the higher your altitude, the more exposed you are to UV light.

Do contact lenses provide protection against UV rays?

Several brands of contact lenses are built with UV protection, but it is still best to wear sunglasses for extra coverage, especially if it is dry, hot or windy. Contact lenses only cover the center of the eye, so surrounding areas like your eyelids and sclera are still exposed. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, your eyes and contact lenses may get dry and irritated from the elements, so be sure to remove them as soon as you get home to let your eyes breathe.

What is the standard UV protection to look for when buying sunglasses?

The sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface is made up of two types of harmful rays: UV-A and UV-B. You should choose sunglasses that provide 100% protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. You may see the designation UV 400, which blocks light under 400 nanometers (including UVA and UVB). For those who spend time on the water, polarized sunglasses can help reduce reflections and glare. Be sure that your polarized glasses provide maximum UV protection.

Can long-term exposure to the sun cause cataracts?

Yes, long-term sun exposure can cause cataracts. The most common eye problems related to sun exposure are cataracts and macular degeneration. While cataracts can be removed with surgery, macular degeneration is permanent and often quite debilitating. In addition, the skin around the eye is susceptible to skin cancer, so it is important to wear sun protection whenever possible. In contrast, even brief sungazing can cause permanent vision impairment, so never look directly at the sun.

Why is it important to wear goggles in the pool?

Goggles not only allow you to see better underwater, but they also protect the eyes from chlorine and other chemicals in the water that can be toxic. If you are a contact lens wearer, please discard any contact lenses after swimming because lenses can harbor bacteria that could cause severe eye infections.

What are symptoms of eye allergies and what is the best way to treat them?

Itching, swelling, redness, irritation, tearing and blurry vision are all symptoms of eye allergies. People can have allergies seasonally or year-round. If you are struggling with allergies, you should talk to your doctor about the best way to manage your symptoms. There are prescription and over-the-counter allergy medications for the eyes, nose and throat. If you have chronic or seasonal eye allergies, you should consider using preservative-free artificial tears to clean the surface of your eyes and wash away allergens. These eye drops are safe to use and are available over-the-counter at most drug stores. Cool compresses may help reduce swelling and the urge to itch. Consider air filters and purifiers in the home as well.

Should you be wearing protective eyewear when doing outdoor work like mowing the lawn?

Always consider protective eyewear when you are working in an environment that puts you at risk for accidents or projectiles. Search for wrap-around eyewear that protects the eyes from the sides as well.

Is it necessary to protect your eyes when playing sports like baseball or basketball?

I recommend protective eyewear for high-risk sports because of the potential for sight-threatening injuries or even concussions. It’s always better to wear protection with contact sports and high-speed activities. Prescription sports glasses can be customized for athletes and kids to make sure vision is secure and comfortable.

Should my children get their eyes checked before they go back to school in the fall?

We always encourage parents to bring their children to the eye clinic, as vision is vital to their success in the classroom. Pediatric eye exams not only assess how well they can see, but also their eye movements, coordination and focusing ability to make sure they are able to manage the increasing demands of each academic year.

In Illinois, children are required to have an eye exam before their first school year. This is important because we want to optimize their vision for learning, but young children may not show signs or report symptoms.

Steven Quan

Steven Quan, OD

Steven Quan, OD, is an optometrist providing care to patients at our Hyde Park and Orland Park locations.

Learn more about Dr. Quan
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