Did you know that over-exposure to sunlight can damage your eyes as well as your skin? The danger lies in the sun’s ultra-violet (UV) rays. While some effects on the eyes are temporary, others can be permanent and irreversible.
Exposure to high doses of UV light over short periods can cause a very painful condition called photokeratitis. This is an inflammation of the cornea at the front of your eye - essentially, a form of ocular sunburn. If your eyes have ever been red and irritated after a day at the beach, you've probably suffered a mild form of photokeratitis. Certain activities, like skiing and water sports, can cause more severe cases due to the additional effects of UV light reflected off snow or water. Fortunately, although painful and unpleasant at the time, the effects of photokeratitis are temporary, resolving within 24 – 48 hours.
The longer-term effects of UV light, however, are more insidious and easier to ignore. That's because they are painless and develop gradually over the course of a lifetime’s exposure to the sun. Possible complications include:
Macular degeneration: UV light damages the delicate cells of the macula (the central area in the retina at the back of your eye), causing them to age prematurely.
Cataracts: UV rays disrupt the chemical composition of the lens inside your eye, making it less transparent and more cloudy.
Pinguecula: a yellowish-coloured swelling that develops on the white of your eye. Although benign, a pinguecula may become unsightly and cause discomfort.
Pterygium: a wedge-shaped growth that extends from the white of your eye onto the cornea. If a pterygium starts to grow across the pupil area, your vision can be affected, requiring an operation to remove it.
Skin cancer: this can develop in the tissues around your eyes. The eyelids are a particularly susceptible area.
The good news is that you can easily protect your eyes against the harmful effects of UV light by wearing optical quality sunglasses. It is especially important for children to protect their eyes against the sun. This is because children spend more time outdoors than adults. Also, children’s eyes are less effective at filtering out UV rays. If you wear spectacles, you needn’t miss out on UV protection, as sunglasses can be made up to your personal prescription - even varifocals and bifocals.
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