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Sharp Health News

Can you sunburn your eyes?

Aug. 17, 2022

Woman looking at the sun

We all know the damaging effects the sun can have on our skin, but did you know you can get a sunburn on your eyes?

An eye sunburn, called photokeratitis, occurs when ultraviolet (UV) rays cause damage to the surface of the eyes. Exposure to UV rays can cause inflammation within the eye, specifically to the corneas.

Dr. Jennifer Tam, a Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group optometrist, answers your top 4 questions about sunburned eyes.

1. What are symptoms of sunburned eyes?

Just as having a sunburn on the skin can be painful and uncomfortable, photokeratitis can cause pain to the eyes. Other symptoms include redness, a gritty feeling and swelling in the eyes; blurred vision; watery eyes; sensitivity to bright light; headache; seeing halos; and twitching of the eyelids.

2. How can you treat sunburned eyes?

If you have symptoms from photokeratitis, avoid rubbing your eyes. Try to stay indoors or wear UV-blocking sunglasses to reduce the amount of light exposure. If you wear contact lenses, you should remove them to prevent further irritation. The following steps can also provide relief:

  • Use a washcloth to create a cold compress and place it over closed eyes to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Try artificial tears to lubricate the eyes and reduce the gritty feeling.
  • Take an over-the-counter, nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, to help reduce inflammation and irritation to the eye.

The condition can sometimes resolve without treatment in a few hours to days, but if the pain is severe or your vision has been affected, then medical treatment is needed. An eye care physician may prescribe eye drops for treatment.

3. How can you prevent sunburned eyes?

The best way to protect your eyes is to wear proper eye protection, such as sunglasses, that block 99% to 100% of UVA/UVB rays. UV-blocking goggles are also an option for protection during winter activities.

Wear sunglasses whenever you are outdoors, even on cloudy days, because UV rays can penetrate clouds. For additional protection, you can also wear a large, wide-brimmed hat.

4. Why is it important to protect your eyes from the sun?

Protecting your eyes from the sun reduces the risk for developing certain eye conditions, such as cataracts, eyelid cancers or macular degeneration, an eye disease that causes vision loss. Long-term chronic exposure can also lead to tissue buildup on the eye, called pinguecula or pterygium.

“UV rays reflect off sand, water, ice or snow during activities such as hanging out at the beach, snowboarding or skiing, hiking, sailing or fishing,” says Dr. Tam. “Be outdoor smart and make sure you are protecting your skin with sunscreen and eyes with proper eyewear and a wide-brimmed hat. Your eyes will thank you later.”

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