The sun beats down, and your shoulders redden. What burns you isn't actually the sun's heat. Rather, it's something you can't even feel: ultraviolet (UV) light, which the hottest objects in the universe — like our sun — give off in large amounts. And as surely as these rays damage unprotected skin, they can damage unprotected eyes.
That damage can lead to painful problems — and even vision loss. Randy Epstein, MD, an ophthalmologist at Rush University Medical Center, offers advice to help you safeguard your vision against UV light.
1. Block UV rays. Wear sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays. Behind sunglasses, the pupil of your eye widens to let in more light. This means dark lenses without UV protection could let even more UV rays into your eyes than going without shades would.
"Ultraviolet rays can stimulate free radical formation within the eye's lens," Epstein says. "That accelerates the aging process, which leads to cataracts."
Cataracts, the most common cause of blindness in adults, cloud the eye's lens — which must be clear to work properly. The only effective cataract treatment is surgical removal of the clouded lens and, typically, replacement with an artificial implant called an intraocular lens.
2. Double up. Contact lenses with UV protection are becoming increasingly common. But even with this built-in UV protection, it's important to wear sunglasses. "I don't think it's possible to put enough UV barrier into a contact lens," Epstein says.
Contacts also don't cover the entire eye, leaving the eyelids and some of the sclera (the white of the eye) unprotected. Intense UV exposure can harm the surface tissue and may cause benign growths on the sclera, which, though not cancerous, can be cosmetically disfiguring.
3. Wear goggles. Certain activities — like snow skiing and using a tanning bed — increase your exposure to intense UV rays. Not wearing protective goggles during hours of exposure in the snow or just a few minutes in a tanning bed can cause photokeratitis — an extremely painful cornea burn. UV exposure can be associated with precancerous and cancerous lesions on the eye.
Within minutes of direct, unprotected sun exposure, the retina can be damaged to the point that vision is permanently impaired. If you've been exposed to intense UV light and it feels as if there's something in your eyes that won't go away, get medical attention as soon as possible, Epstein says.
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