It’s summer vacation and you take your family to the beach for a fun day in the sun. You realize you forget your sunglasses at home. Not a big deal, right?
Wrong. Unfortunately, UV exposure can do severe damage to your eyes and other organs. Not to mention the damage it can do to your children’s eyes. UV rays are responsible for causing corneal damage, cataracts, melanoma of the eye, and macular degeneration. These eye diseases can impair your sight and eventually cause complete vision loss.
Before you go on summer vacation, learn about the risks of UV exposure and how to protect yourself.
What Is UV Light?
The sun emits energy in the forms of light and heat. The light energy is called ultraviolet radiation (UV rays) and it ranges in intensity. We measure UV light in nanometers, although we can’t see the rays with our naked eyes.
There are three types of UV rays: UVC, UVB, and UVA.
Ultraviolet C is the least harmful type of exposure. They measure around 250 nanometers and barely reach us on earth. The upper levels of the atmosphere absorb them, and we don’t even have to worry about protecting ourselves.
Ultraviolet B is more dangerous than C. At 380 nanometers, these rays reach us on earth and can damage our eyes. They’re notorious for causing snow blindness and glare. Not to mention sunburns and the creation of melanoma.
Ultraviolet A is the main villain of sun exposure. These are the rays that cause severe and irreparable eye damage. Despite matching UVB at 380 nanometers, UVA gets absorbed into our lenses and damages the retina. They also have the power to reach us through water, clothing, and clouds.
How UV Radiation Affects Your Eyes
When we discuss the damage caused by UV radiation, we’re talking about A and B rays. These intense, high-energy rays can cause a range of issues for our vision. 99 percent of UV exposure gets absorbed into the front of our eyes and then affects the various components of the eye.
For one, UV exposure can cause severe corneal damage and photokeratitis. This painful condition feels like having a sunburn, only on your eye. It can occur when you stare directly at the sun, or when the sun’s rays reflect off other surfaces into our eyes. The well-known “snow blindness” is an example of UV rays bouncing off the snow and into our corneas. People who live far up North are at a higher risk of snow blindness and photokeratitis. A minor form of corneal damage from the sun, pterygium, can also cause severe pain and eye damage.
Another condition caused by UV radiation exposure is melanoma. Ocular melanoma is caused primarily by genetics, but there is significant research that shows its connection to UV rays. Melanoma in the eyes is very hard to detect because you can’t see any symptoms when you look in the mirror. The only symptoms you’ll have are blurry vision, floaters in vision, and loss of peripheral vision. Since these symptoms can indicate many other ocular conditions, you’ll need an ophthalmologist’s diagnosis.
UV radiation exposure can lead to cataract development and glaucoma. UV damage is cumulative; this means that years and years of exposure will eventually catch up with you. For many people, the end result is either cataracts or glaucoma. Cataracts develop when the proteins in your eyes clump together causing a “foggy” appearance in the lens. The fogginess impairs your vision and can further develop into complete vision loss. Glaucoma is a condition where the intraocular eye pressure is too high and damages the optic nerve. UV radiation exposure increases your chances of developing both conditions later in life.
It’s Not All Bad
UV exposure isn’t completely bad. In fact, we need a healthy dose of it daily for our circadian rhythm, mood stability, and vitamin D production. Our bodies need vitamin D to promote bone health. Not only does it help protect our bones from fractures, but it can aid in the prevention of rickets. Vitamin D is also super beneficial for people suffering from skin psoriasis. The treatments for diseases like psoriasis and lupus sometimes include synthetic UV radiation from lamps.
People who are fair-skinned should get about 10 minutes of UV radiation from the sun, without sunscreen. Darker skin tones can take a few more minutes. While these short increments each day are good for us, it’s crucial you don’t overdo it.
How It Affects the Rest of Your Body
It’s a well-known problem that excess UV exposure can cause melanoma or skin cancer. But, in addition to cancer and the eye diseases listed above, it can also damage other bodily systems. Your immune system can be severely weakened by UV radiation. This means you’re less able to fend off viruses, and vaccines are less effective. It can even trigger smallpox lesions to develop into herpes simplex. Not to mention the damage it does to your skin: premature wrinkles, sun spots, sagging, and more.
How You Can Protect Your Eyes
Now that you know all the risks of exposing your eyes and skin to UV radiation, how can you protect yourself? In some parts of the world, the sun is nearly always out. And in others, the UV rays can still penetrate through clouds and overcast. Prevention is key to maintaining your vision and avoiding future eye diseases.
1. Limit Your Exposure
After getting your daily amount of radiation for your skin type, stay out of the sun. The best way to avoid the risks of radiation is to avoid it altogether. Choose shady areas when you’re outside. Consider using a sun umbrella or timing your outings for when the sun isn’t as strong.
2. Protect Yourself
Most of us use sunglasses already. They’re fashionable and make it easier to see when the sun is bright. Sunglasses are crucial to protecting your eyes from UV exposure. When picking out a pair, make sure it states that it blocks 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays. This is especially important for children and babies. Young eyes are sensitive to photokeratitis. They also have more time to build up damage resulting in cataracts and glaucoma. Since kids love playing outside in the sun, make sure they’re equipped with UV blocking sunglasses.
3. Get Regular Checkups
Many diseases are treatable if caught early enough. Ensure your eyes are healthy by getting regular checkups with your ophthalmologist. Not only will this protect your eyes from developing diseases, but you’ll always have an accurate prescription for glasses and contact lenses. Many ophthalmology offices sell sunglasses and other protective gear for your eyes.