We hear a lot about how ultraviolet rays damage our skin, but did you know that these rays also can damage our eyes? Prolonged exposure to UV rays can cause burns to the surface of the eye, and cumulative effects of ultraviolet damage have been linked to cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and a reduced ability to see clearly at night.
Reflected sunlight, such as light that bounces off water or even snow, can be the most dangerous type of UV light because it is intensified. Children are more susceptible to ultraviolet damage than adults because they tend to spend more time outside than adults and often are not as careful to protect their eyes. Children also don’t realize that even when the weather is overcast, the sun still emits intense, harmful rays. Sun damage to eyes — like skin damage — accumulates over time so it is important to teach children to protect their eyes to ensure a lifetime of healthy vision.
Even one day in the sun can result in a burned cornea — this is the outermost, clear membrane layer of the eye. Remember also that water reflects and intensifies the sun’s rays so everyone must be especially careful when playing in pools, lakes, rivers or oceans. The best way to protect your eyes is to wear sunglasses and a brimmed hat. Since many children don’t enjoy wearing sunglasses, encourage them by letting them choose a style they particularly like. It shouldn’t be too tough because many manufacturers now make fun, multicolored frames or frames embossed with cartoon characters. Don’t forget that kids want to be like grown-ups, so if you wear sunglasses regularly, your kids will be more likely to follow your example.
Adults who spend a large amount of time in the sun, whether for work or recreation, are at greater risk for eye problems caused by UV rays. People who have had cataract surgery or other retinal disorders, and people who take certain medicines, such as tetracycline, sulfa drugs, birth control pills, diuretics and tranquilizers, also are at increased risk. It is important to read the information provided with prescription medication so that you don’t unknowingly subject your children or yourself to increased susceptibility to the sun.
Short-term over-exposure of the eyes to sun may result in excessive blinking, swelling, difficulty looking at strong light and sunburn of the cornea (acute photokeratopathy). Exposure to UV radiation over long periods can result in more serious damage to the eyes, including cataracts (cloudiness of the lens), pterygium (an overgrowth of the conjunctiva on to the cornea), solar keratopathy (cloudiness of the cornea) and cancer of the eyelids, eye area and conjunctiva (the membrane covering the white part of the eye).
Not all sunglasses provide the same level of ultraviolet protection. Some sunglasses are just darkened plastic or glass lenses without special UV filters, which can trick wearers into a false sense of safety. Just because a lens is tinted does not mean it offers UV defense. Buy sunglasses with labels ensuring that they provide 99-100 percent UV protection.
Prevent Blindness America encourages parents to help protect their children’s eyes by doing the following:
• Only buy sunglasses that offer UV protection.
• Make sure sunglasses fit your child’s face and shield the eyes from all angles.
• Choose lenses that are impact-resistant and made of polycarbonate, never glass, unless prescribed by a doctor.
• Always insist that children wear brimmed hats.
Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.