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Can You Sunburn Your Eyes?

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A woman outdoors covering her eyes from the sun's rays by blocking them with her hand.

You might think that as temperatures drop, so do your chances of getting a sunburn, but that’s not necessarily true. Even if you’re bundled up, there’s another part of your body you might be neglecting—your eyes.

Just like your skin, overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light can sunburn your eyes, causing a condition called photokeratitis. That’s why you should always wear sunglasses when you’re outside. If you don’t protect yourself now, UV damage can increase your risk of developing serious eye conditions later in life. Your optometrist can examine your eyes and help you keep them safe from the sun’s harmful rays. 

What Is UV Radiation?

Light comes in wavelengths, and ultraviolet (UV) light is an invisible energy on the low end of the light wavelength spectrum. While sun exposure is a vital part of our lives, such as when it helps our bodies produce vitamin D, the UV light it emits can also cause cell damage in our eyes.

Sunlight is often the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about UV radiation. While the sun is indeed a major source, it’s not the only one. Even when you’re indoors, you can still be exposed to UV light from sources like lightbulbs, lasers, and tanning beds. Some types of work, like welding, can also involve significant exposure to UV light.

Moreover, don’t be fooled by cloudy days—UV radiation can penetrate clouds and reach your eyes. UV light can also bounce off surfaces like water, sand, or fresh snow. So, whether you’re inside or out, you need to be cautious about protecting your eyes.

Recognizing Sunburned Eyes

When your eyes are exposed to excessive UV radiation, it often affects the front of your eyes. This area includes your cornea, which is the clear dome on the front of your eye, and your conjunctiva, which is the clear membrane covering the inside of your eyelids.

In some cases, UV radiation can penetrate deeper, damaging your lens or the retina too.

Common symptoms of sunburned eyes include:

  • Eye pain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Red eyes
  • Headaches
  • Blurriness
  • A gritty, sand-like feeling
  • Watery eyes
  • Eyelids swelling or twitching

These symptoms usually subside within a day or 2. However, if you experience more severe symptoms, such as halos around bright lights, distorted vision, or dark areas in your vision, it’s crucial to consult your optometrist for an examination. Those could be signs of severe UV damage or other serious eye conditions.

The Dangers of Long-Term UV Radiation Exposure

The first time you get a mild sunburn, it may be painful, but it doesn’t usually leave lasting damage. However, that exposure can add up over the year. The same can be said for your eyes. Repeated overexposure to UV radiation can increase your risk of developing several eye conditions, such as:

  • Cataracts
  • Eye cancer
  • Pterygium (surfer’s eye)
  • Macular degeneration
A woman wearing sunglasses that block 99-100% of UV light is protecting her eyes from the sun's harmful rays.

Preventing Sunburned Eyes

Prevention is always better than treatment when it comes to sunburned eyes. Protecting your eyes can be simple—and it can save you from a lot of discomfort. Here’s how:

  • Wear sunglasses that block 100% of UV light year-round—not just during summer
  • Opt for a hat with a brim at least 3 inches wide for added protection
  • Be mindful of light reflecting off water, sand, and snow
  • Don’t be fooled by clouds—UV light can still reach your eyes on cloudy days
  • Be cautious at high altitudes, where UV intensity can be higher
  • Stay in the shade during midday when the sun’s rays are most intense

Treating Sunburned Eyes

In many cases, sunburned eyes can heal naturally within a few days. To alleviate pain and discomfort, you can:

  • Stay in a dark room
  • Apply a cool, damp washcloth to your eyes
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses
  • Use hydrating eye drops (artificial tears) as recommended by an eye doctor

In severe cases, your optometrist may recommend pain medication or antibiotic eye drops. Ideally, we’d prefer to let your eyes heal naturally whenever possible.

Eye Protection with Milton Eye and Vision Care

Don’t put away those sunglasses just because winter’s at your door—wearing sunglasses all year is crucial for helping your eyes stay healthy and happy. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between enjoying the outdoors and protecting your eyes!

At Milton Eye and Vision Care, we offer a wide selection of stylish and protective sunglasses to help keep those harmful UV rays at bay. And if the unexpected happens, our knowledgeable team is ready to examine your eyes and support your eye health.

Remember, sunlight can invigorate your body and mind, so embrace it! Just take the time to safeguard your eyes too. Book an appointment today, and let our expert team help you find the right pair of shades to keep your eyes healthy and your vision clear.

Written by Dr. Ronald Nicholas Strohan

Dr. Strohan has been an integrative optometrist in the Milton, Ontario area for over 40 years and has always stayed true to his philosophy of focusing on excellent patient eye care. He has studied behavioural optometry for more than 4 decades and is passionate about providing clear vision for patients of all ages. He takes pride in offering the latest eye care products and advancements in vision therapy.
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