Better Me

Can My Eyes Get a Sunburn?

Summer is around the corner, which means it’s time to dust off that swimsuit and rub on the sunscreen. There’s nothing quite like a day by the pool with a cold drink. But don’t forget to wear sunglasses. Because, yes, you can sunburn your eyes.

“It’s called photokeratitis,” said Todd Altenbernd, MD, a comprehensive ophthalmologist at Banner – University Medicine Ophthalmology Clinic in Tucson, AZ. “When your eye is exposed to too many ultraviolet (UV) rays, the cornea can become damaged and irritated.”

Common causes

Spending a lot of time in direct sunlight without UV-blocking eye protection is an easy way to get photokeratitis, but a sun exposure certainly isn’t the only thing to look out for.

Surface reflection

Water, sand, snow and ice can reflect powerful UV rays back up into your eyes. Which of course means that you can get a sunburn in the middle of winter. If you’ve ever gone skiing on a sunny day without a scarf or buff and experienced snow blindness, you probably learned that the hard way. The same rule applies for boating and beach days. Always pack your sunscreen and proper eye protection like UV-protective sunglasses or snow goggles.

Solar eclipse

You know not to stare directly at the sun. Of course, staring at a solar eclipse presents the same dangers. In fact, looking directly at a solar eclipse can quickly create long-term retina damage. Be sure to use approved safety equipment if you’re going to observe the celestial light show.

Arc welders

The bright light from an arc welder is so powerful it can result in photokeratitis. Wear your mask and protective gear to protect your eyes from the light and debris that may fly in your direction as you work.

Tanning beds

There are a lot of good reasons to avoid tanning beds in general. Even man-made lights can create a sunburn on the surface of your eyes. Those funny plastic eyeball covers help, but that much UV exposure isn’t a good idea for any part of your body let alone the tender surface of your eyes.

How to know if you have photokeratitis

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) lists the following symptoms of photokeratitis or signs that you may have a sunburn on your eyes.

  • pain
  • redness
  • blurriness
  • tearing
  • gritty feeling
  • swelling
  • sensitivity to bright light
  • headache
  • seeing halos
  • small pupils
  • eyelid twitching
  • rarely, temporary vision loss

How to treat the sunburn

“Like a sunburn on your skin, photokeratitis will usually go away on its own after one to two days,” said Dr. Altenbernd. “Which means that treatments mostly focus on reducing your discomfort.” Over the counter and/or prescribed eye drops will help to reduce irritation. If you wear contacts, be sure to take them out.

Protect your eyes

Even though sunburns on your skin and eyes tend to fade on their own, lasting damage could appear as a result of repeat or excessive exposure. UV-blocking sunglasses are your best bet to avoid photokeratitis while you enjoy the outdoors.

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