We’ve all heard of it. Some of us kind of know what it is. Most of us know what it does… at least to our skin. But how many of us really know the effects of ultraviolet radiation on our eyes? No. Not the little “laugh lines” at the corners. The actual damage that it can do to our EYES!
Used to be – not so long ago – we young sun worshipers would go outside on that first warm day of Spring (I grew up in the frigid north) armed with only the newest teen magazine and a bottle of baby oil. After greasing ourselves up, we’d sizzle in the sun until we browned like a Thanksgiving turkey. Then, science taught us about UV. Oops.
Most of us now understand the effects that exposure to UV can have on our skin – everything from those laugh lines to various forms of skin cancer. Well, here’s what ultraviolet radiation can do to your eyes.
First, let’s understand UV. Ultraviolet is only one form of radiation – or energy – released by the sun. The light that we see and the heat that it generates are two others. Ultraviolet radiation breaks down into three forms — UVA, UVB and UVC. Generally, UVC radiation (the most damaging!) is absorbed by Earth’s ozone layer before it can reach the surface. This is why the ozone layer is so important! UVA and UVB, however, are a different matter.
Secondly, understand that UV is part of the sun’s overall energy. It doesn’t have to be a bright, sunny day for us to be affected by UV radiation! On a cloudy day, the exposure can still run high. Why does this matter? One of the eye’s natural defenses against sunlight – and, therefore, UV – is the constriction of the pupil. On a cloudy day, the pupil may not get as small, so Nature’s way of protecting our eyes is compromised. That’s why sunglasses and/or UV filters on our regular glasses are so important.
So, what does ultraviolet radiation do to our eyes?
UVA is especially damaging to the inside of your eye. In particular, the macula. That’s the part of your eye that gives you your central vision — your sharpest vision. UVB causes damage to the front of your eye. The cornea (the clear “bubble” that covers the colored part of your eye) and your eye’s natural lens. Together, here’s the problems that they can cause:
PINGUECULA – We see this a lot in people from equatorial and tropical regions, especially those who spend many hours outside. A pinguecula is a growth on the surface of the eye. In most cases, it is a cosmetic issue, as they have a tendency to become red and irritated. Pinguecula can grow onto the cornea and encroach on your vision. At that point they are called a Pterygium and can be surgically removed.
SKIN CANCERS – We know that UV can cause skin cancer, including the area around our eyes and eyelids. In fact, 99% of non-melanomas and 95% of melanomas are caused by overexposure to the sun! The eyelid is actually one of the most common places for skin cancers to occur.
CATARACTS – Cataracts will generally occur in everyone’s eyes sooner or later. They are a natural part of those trips around the sun that we take. They can also be enhanced by exposure to UVB radiation. Cataracts can be surgically removed with good results, but why rush them along? The World Health Organization estimates that up to 20 percent of cataracts may be caused by overexposure to UV radiation.
MACULAR DEGENERATION – Again, macular degeneration can be an age-related issue. But it can also be strongly affected by UV exposure. Unlike cataracts, there is no “easy” fix for macular degeneration. There are treatments for the condition. The progression can be slowed down. Existing damage, however, can rarely be reversed and there is no known cure.
PHOTOKERATITIS (Corneal Sunburn) – This can be caused by intense, short-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Sunlight reflecting off of water, sand, snow and ice can cause this painful condition. So can staring at the sun – like watching a solar eclipse without using a device made specifically for you to do so safely. Unprotected use of tanning beds and lamps and arc welders can also burn the delicate tissues of the eye.
As stated before, protection from ultraviolet radiation is simple. Most types of eyewear have some type of “filter” that absorbs UV. Even clear eyeglass lenses can be treated to protect your eyes. Many contact lenses now provide UV protection, but that is very limited. Sunglasses are always the best option for contact lens wearers.
Dr Kay and Dr Deweese and the rest of the team at Hollywood Eyes will be more than happy to help you with any questions that you may have. The doctors are also able to diagnose and treat many UV-related problems!
Stop in or give us a call. We’ll be happy to help!