Ultraviolet Radiation and Your Eyes: Get Sun Smart!

As the summer heats up many of us are eager to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the activities that go along with it.  While continued awareness of the importance of UV protective clothing and sunscreen exists, there is a lack of emphasis on the impacts the sun and UV exposure has on the eyes.  UV damage to the eyes is known as the “invisible threat” and its impacts are measured and classified by the strength of the UV ray in nanometers (nm).  

UVC: These rays are below 280 nm. The upper atmosphere absorbs these, so they do not reach us, therefore protection from these rays is not overly necessary.

UVB: These are between 315 – 380 nm. These manage to make it to the earth’s surface and are notorious for damaging sight. They can cause snow blindness but are notably responsible for sunburn and several types of skin cancer. Research has shown that these rays are strongest during the summer and at higher altitudes.

UVA: These are the most dangerous being 315 – 380 nm. They are known for causing chronic eye damage. Studies have indicated that these rays get absorbed by the lenses of our eyes leading to damage of the retina. They contribute to the occurrence of cataracts, are also a major cause of aging and unfortunately can pass through clouds, glass, water and clothing.

In order to keep eyes protected from solar radiation, 100% UV block sunglasses should be worn anytime outdoors in daylight.  Even on cloudy days, damaging UV rays can penetrate the cloud coverage. 

Who is at Risk?

Everyone (including children) is at risk for eye damage from UV radiation that can lead to vision loss. Any factor that increases the amount of time you spend in the sun will increase your risk.

People who work or play in the sun for long periods of time are at the greatest risk.

The risk of sun related eye problems is higher for people who:

  • spend long hours in the sun
  • have had cataract surgery or have certain retina disorders
  • are on certain medicines, such as tetracycline, sulfa drugs, birth control pills, diuretics and tranquilizers that increase the eye’s sensitivity to light 

Additionally, extended UV exposure has been linked to significant eye problems, including cataracts, macular degeneration, pingueculae, pterygia and photokeratitis.   Many skin cancers can occur on the eyelids and external features of the eye.  Additionally, while ocular melanoma is rare it is the most common eye cancer in adults, because of the increasing number of UV related cataracts and eye cancers; Prevent Blindness, and many other organizations, strongly recommend that everyone utilize UV protection eyewear, not only those who engage in outdoor disciplines and recreation.

When we are caught up in the delights of summer we tend to overlook the simple proactive measures that we can take to protect against vision loss and UV related eye damage and even life-threatening ocular cancers.  In addition to taking a few extra moments to protect yourself and your loved ones before rushing out into the sunshine, it is imperative that people take the time for annual eye exams. An optomap screening is an excellent, expedient way to get a comprehensive view of the retina and to gain essential information about one’s ocular health. optomap is the only proven, clinically-validated, ultra-widefield retinal image that can capture 82% or 200⁰ of the retina, which can reveal incredibly subtle changes from the central pole to the far periphery of the retina in a single capture – and in a fraction of a second – so you can get out there (well-protected, of course) and enjoy that summer sun.

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