Eye Health: Enjoy the summer sun – but don’t forget the sunglasses!

by: Daniel K. Messner, M.D., Glaucoma Treatment & Cataract Surgery, Carolina Eye Associates

Sunglasses are more than a bold fashion statement; they are a smart health choice. Most know the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays are bad for the skin. But did you know that too much sun on unprotected eyes increases the risk of eye disease? UV-A and UV-B radiation can have long- and short-term negative effects on the eyes and vision. In fact, 3.2 million people every year go blind from eye conditions caused in part by prolonged exposure to UV rays.

There are two types of UV rays: UV-A and UV-B. UV-A can hurt your central vision. It can damage the macula, a part of the retina at the back of your eye. The front part of your eye (the cornea and the lens) absorbs most UV-B rays, these rays may cause even more damage to your eyes than UV-A rays. This includes:

  • Cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s natural lens, the part of the eye that focuses the light we see
  • Macular degeneration (a leading cause of vision loss for older Americans) happens when a part of the retina called the macula is damaged
  • Growths on the eye 
  • Ocular melanoma, a rare form of eye cancer

Even short-term exposure can damage the eyes. Photokeratitis, also known as ultraviolet keratitis, a painful eye condition, can be caused by sun reflection from sand, water, ice and snow as well as man-made sources of UV light, including tanning lamps and tanning beds. It is like having a sunburned eye, as exposure to UV rays temporarily damage the cornea (the clear portion of the eye in front of the pupil) and the conjunctiva (a layer of cells covering the inside of the eyelid and the whites of the eye). 

The good news is that prevention is simple! Always wear good-quality sunglasses when you are outdoors. When purchasing sunglasses, choose substance over style, and consider these tips:

  1. Wear sunglasses that block or absorb 99 to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB radiation. Be sure to look for a label, sticker or tag showing they block these harmful rays. 
  2. Don’t be fooled by color. The amount of UV protection sunglasses provide is unrelated to the color and darkness of the lenses.
  3. Go big. The more coverage from sunglasses, the less sun damage inflicted on the eyes. To protect as much of the delicate skin around your eyes as possible, try at least one pair of sunglasses with large lenses or a close-fitting wraparound style.
  4. Consider polarized lenses. Polarization reduces glare coming off reflective surfaces like water or pavement. This does not offer more protection from the sun but can make activities like driving or being on the water safer or more enjoyable.

If you have dark skin and eyes, you still need to wear sunglasses. Although dark skin color may give you a lower risk of skin cancer from UV radiation, there is still risk of eye damage from UV rays.

Sunglasses don’t have to cost a lot of money to provide adequate eye protection. Less expensive pairs marked as 99 to 100 percent UV-blocking can be just as effective as pricier options.

And remember – harmful UV rays are present even on cloudy days. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat also cuts down on exposure. And don’t forget babies and kids. They also need to wear hats and sunglasses.

Daniel K. Messner, M.D. is a specialist in glaucoma treatment and cataract surgery. He has been providing care to patients for more than 30 years. For more information on glaucoma and other services offered by Carolina Eye, call (800) 733-5357 or visit www.carolinaeye.com