The brightest star in the solar system rises each day, shining its light on the Earth. One of the primary benefits of exposure to the sun is Vitamin D production, which is essential to bone health. Also, Ultraviolet (UV) radiation given off by the sun makes you sleep more easily and improves your mood and energy levels. Like most good things, however, exposure to the sun’s UV rays has its disadvantages, particularly on your eyes. These effects can be both short- and long-term.
Photokeratitis is an acute syndrome that occurs as a result of a kind of sunburn on the cornea of the eyes. This condition is one of the most common problems from radiation injury. Typically, irritation from photokeratitis, or UV keratitis feels like a gritty texture behind the eyelids, as if sand were in the eyes. Other symptoms include tearing and sensitivity to light. A more severe form of photokeratitis is snow-blindness which happens when the eye is exposed to large amounts of UV radiation from looking at snow. Fresh snow can reflect up to 80 percent of this radiation and causes the outer cells on the eyeball to die. Temporary blindness occurs as old cells shed off and new ones generate.
Another condition that can arise within a few hours of intense sunlight exposure is photoconjunctivitis. It is similar to photokeratitis; but, rather than affecting the cornea, it involves inflammation to the conjunctiva, which is the thin membrane covers the inside of the eyelid and the white part of the eyeball.
Repeated exposure to the sun’s UV rays can cause pterygium, a condition that limits eyesight due to the conjunctiva growing over part of the cornea. Pterygium is also called “surfer’s eye” since it frequently plagues those who are exposed to UV radiation year-round. One of the primary culprits of vision loss of individuals over age 60 may also be caused by UV radiation. Macular degeneration involves damage to the macula region of the retina and leads to a reduction in the sharpness of vision and blind spots. Cataracts, another eye condition common in older people, involving cloudiness in the lens of the eye may also result from prolonged exposure to the sun.
Finally, one of the most serious consequences of UV exposure is the potential for cancers of the eye. These cancers can range from those affecting the skin around the eye and on the eyelids such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma. Other cancers include intraocular melanoma, the most common albeit rarest form of eye cancer, as well as cancers of the conjunctiva, which have been rising over the past several decades. Your best hope against these eye conditions is practicing healthy eye care by limiting your exposure to the sun as much as possible. When exposure is necessary, be sure to wear appropriate sunglasses and a hat to protect your eyes from the solar system’s brightest star. Speak to your optometrist about which sunglasses you should be wearing.