Ask the Eye Docs: Is Sunlight Bad for Your Eyes?

For more than a decade, the dedicated team of eye specialists at Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons, has provided patients from all across Georgia with an array of eye care services, ranging from routine vision examinations for prescription eyewear and comprehensive medical eye exams to advanced eye disease treatment and refractive eye surgery.  In the latest installment of our ongoing blog feature, board-certified ophthalmologist Dr. William Segal and licensed consultative optometrist Dr. Marc Lay answer some of the most commonly asked questions about eyesight and vision care.

Ask the Eye Docs Is Sunlight Bad for Your Eyes

QUESTION: Before summer is over, I am planning on taking an extended beach vacation with my family.  However, I am concerned about the damage that extended periods outside under the hot sun can have on my children’s eyesight.  I know that sun screen is extremely important, but I expect that it will be much more difficult to make sure that my children keep up with and wear their sunglasses.  Just how worried should I be about potential damage from ultraviolet light and what steps can I take to protect my family?

ANSWER: The sun constantly emits dangerous radiation, but the majority of it is effectively “screened out” by the earth’s natural magnetic field and the uppermost layers of atmosphere.  However, as you know, the ultraviolet light that gets through can still have negative effects.  In high doses, ultraviolet light can cause photokeratitis, an inflammation of the cornea somewhat similar to sunburn on the surface of the eye.  Although it is very painful, may cause the characteristic “gritty” feeling commonly associated with dry eye, and (in extreme cases) may cause temporary blindness, photokeratitis is usually only temporary and does not result in any long-term damage.  Some of the lower energy ultraviolet wavelengths can also pass through the transparent outer layer of the cornea, where they can damage the sensitive lens and retina inside the eye itself.  Some research suggests that, over time, this damage will slowly accumulate, potentially causing cataracts or age-related macular degeneration.  Unfortunately, since the eyes cannot actually “see” ultraviolet light, this damage can occur even through cloud cover or “tinted” lenses, even if the external conditions do not seem overly bright.

The damage that sunlight causes to the eyes builds up slowly, but does not go away.  Even though a young child will most likely not experience any immediate symptoms, excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation early on can significantly increase the risk of serious visual impairment as they get older.  That is why it is important for young children to wear proper eye protection, even though it might be inconvenient.  The American Optometric Association (AOA) recommends wearing sunglasses that block out wavelengths up to 400 nanometers (nm), which effectively reflects 99-100 % of both UV-A and UV-B light.  Sunglasses which meet this requirement are usually labeled as “UV 400.”

The eyes are very sensitive organs, but taking a few simple precautions while enjoying the outdoors can go a long way towards preserving your vision and avoiding future difficulties.  If you have any concerns about your vision, or any questions about how to best maintain the health of your eyes, please contact Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons to schedule an eye exam with Dr. William Segal or Dr. Marc Lay. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for more information on how to keep your vision clear and healthy.