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Sunburn in your eyes? It’s possible.


If you think that the only part of your body that can get sunburned is your skin, think again.

As strange as it may sound, your eyes can get sunburned. Even stranger: It can even happen in the winter.

How can we protect our eyes? We all know that SPF protects our skin, but sunscreen has limited applications.

Kimberly Weisenberger, assistant professor of clinical optometry at Ohio State, specializing in contact lenses for various eye conditions, explains eye sunburn, the dangers of it and ways you can protect your eyes.

What exactly is eye sunburn?

The condition is typically called “photokeratitis.”

Photokeratitis — sometimes called ultraviolet keratitis or radiation keratitis — is a term that describes damage to the front surfaces of the eye, including the cornea, resulting from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Under normal circumstances, the structures of the eye are somewhat protected against UV radiation damage. Therefore, this condition is more likely to affect individuals exposed to high levels of UV radiation.

Most people know that they can be sunburned in the summer, but is it possible for it to happen in the winter?

Damage to the eye from high levels of UV radiation may occur when the eyes are exposed to light reflected off certain surfaces, such as water or snow, and therefore may be more likely to occur during outdoor recreational activities such as skiing or watersports.

It may also occur when exposed to UV radiation indoors from tanning beds or welding — called “Welder’s Flash Burn.”

For this reason, photokeratitis can occur at any time during the year — summer or winter.

It is difficult to determine the number of cases of photokeratitis per year; however, in general, the incidence of photokeratitis is thought to be low.

How do you know if your eyes have been sunburned?

The symptoms of photokeratitis do not typically begin until several hours following exposure to UV radiation.

These symptoms may include ocular (eye) pain that may be mild or severe — burning and stinging, blurred vision, light sensitivity, tearing and eye redness.

If an individual is concerned that they have photokeratitis, it is important to visit an optometrist or ophthalmologist for proper diagnosis and treatment.

What is the potential treatment?

Treatment of photokeratitis will depend on the severity of the disease and may include antibiotic eye drops, anti-inflammatory medications, artificial tear lubricating drops or a bandage contact lens.

Can this have long-term effects?

Typically, photokeratitis resolves without causing long-term changes or effects on the front surface of the eye.

However, prolonged or significant UV exposure can have harmful and lasting effects on other ocular structures.

In general, there is no correlation to overall health.

So what tips do you have for protecting your eyes against photokeratitis?

Prevention is key! It is important to always wear sun protection when outdoors to protect the eyes — and skin around the eyes — from excessive UV radiation.

When choosing sunglasses, make sure that the lenses are specifically labeled as UV protective. Sunglass lenses should have protection against both UVA and UVB rays — most UVC radiation is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. For skiing, many snow goggles can be designed with UV-protective lenses, as well.

Additionally, wearing a hat and/or side-shields on your sunglass frame can be beneficial in minimizing UV rays from entering from above or the sides of the sunwear.

Many soft contact lenses also offer UV protection, which can also provide additional coverage.

It is also important to remember to wear sun protection to protect against UV radiation on cloudy days as well.