Sunburning Your Eyes

Posted on May 9th, 2022 by

written by Abegeya T., Allison D., CJ Herrick, and Jessa W. 

 

Living in the upper midwest comes with many positive and negative components. One of these is that snow is around us for the majority of the year. While the snow can be beautiful, there can also be some risks associated with being surrounded by this type of weather. Snow is a highly reflective material, making our surroundings extremely bright. This can cause some issues such as photokeratitis. 

Photokeratitis is also known as snow blindness. This condition is characterized by temporary eye pain after being exposed to extreme ultraviolet light (UV). In other words, it is our eyes getting a sunburn from staring at the vibrant snow (WebMD). This condition impacts the cornea (the clear protective outer layer of the eye) and the conjunctiva (mucous membrane) of the eye (Porter, 2021). Individuals living in the upper midwest may be particularly at risk of this as snow can often be covering the ground for many months of the year, so just looking outside could cause this sensation to occur!

Snow blindness can cause temporary discomfort and pain to those individuals experiencing it. The painful sensations may occur rapidly or not occur until several hours after the burn actually occurs (Moran Eye Center, 2020). The symptoms are temporary and should subside within a day of onset. Because this can be extremely uncomfortable and painful to the individual, it is important to remember that giving your eyes a rest and keeping calm is the best thing to do. 

Snow blindness is caused by overexposure to UV rays in the eyes (WebMD, Glacial). Just like skin can get sunburned, so can the eyes. Being surrounded by surfaces that reflect sunlight easily for long periods of time can damage the clear outer layer of the eye known as the cornea (WebMD). The crystalline structure of snow is ideal for reflecting light, hence its white color. In winter, people often complain that they are “snow blind” because the light reflecting off the snow is so bright. This reflection can cause actual snow blindness, and it’s not just caused by snow. Any light-colored material can reflect enough light to damage the eyes, such as concrete, sand, and water (WebMD, Glacial). Higher altitudes also mean higher exposure to UV rays, making photokeratitis more likely (Web MD, Glacial). Even some machinery, such as welding torches produce UV radiation and can induce snow blindness (Feel Good Contacts). 

According to WebMD, symptoms of snow blindness (photokeratitis) include: eye pain, watering eyes, eye swelling, headache, seeing halos around bright lights, redness in your eyeballs and eyelids, and many more (WebMD). Along with this long list of symptoms, it is important to note the risks that go along with snow blindness. These risks include eye cancer, cataracts (when the eye’s natural lens becomes fuzzy), growths on the eyelids, vision loss, and farsightedness. Though all of these symptoms and risks exist, there are preventative measures and treatments that someone could take in order to avoid getting snow blindness (WebMD). 

There are various ways to treat snow blindness and bring pain relief. If you wear contacts, they must be removed as soon as you notice symptoms and not put back in until you are fully recovered (WebMD). Getting out of the sun is also important. Going inside or finding shade will help prevent the damage from becoming worse (WebMD). Just like with a normal sunburn, putting a cold cloth over the damaged areas can bring relief. Placing cloth-covered ice over your closed eyes can help reduce swelling and mitigate some of the pain (WebMD). Lubricating eye drops act as artificial tears that protect your eyes (WebMD). They also reduce dryness and eye pain that comes from snow blindness. Over-the-counter painkillers will also be strong enough to handle most of the pain (WebMD).

To avoid snow blindness altogether, eye protection is key. Because you can’t put sunscreen on your eyes, sunglasses and goggles are important to wear. Sunglasses with 99-100% UV protection will protect your eyes from most UV rays on a typical day (WebMD). If you’re skiing or snowboarding, goggles are important to give you full protection from any reflection from the snow around you (Glacial). Avoiding tanning beds, which emit UV radiation waves up to 100 times stronger than those from the sun, will also prevent damage to both your eyes and your skin (WebMD). When you’re outside, try to stay in the shade. Shade blocks almost all UV rays, so your eyes will be safer than if you were out in the open sunlight (WebMD). Wearing hats that shield your eyes will also protect you from any sunlight, as long as it is the right kind of hat. Straw hats have holes in them that let through too much sunlight, so they won’t protect your eyes from snow blindness, even if it feels like your eyes are covered. Hats made out of fabric or canvas such as baseball caps do a much better job of protecting you (WebMD). 

Taking care of your eyes is extremely important. In the midwest, people are prone to snow blindness (photokeratitis) which can be caused by overexposure to UV rays in the eyes. As mentioned before, snow blindness does not always involve snow. Snow blindness can occur from reflection from any light-colored material which is strong enough to cause damage to the eyes. There are many symptoms and risks of snow blindness, some of which we mentioned above, but there are easy steps to take in order to prevent getting snow blindness or what to do if you contract this vision loss. It is our hope through this blog post that we have provided you with enough information regarding snow blindness (photokeratitis) and what to do if you experience this vision discomfort. Remember to stay safe and take care of your eyes! 

 

References

Feel Good Contacts Ltd. (n.d.). Snow Blindness: Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment. Feel Good Contacts. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.feelgoodcontacts.com/eye-care-hub/a-guide-to-snow-blindness#:~:text=Snow%20blindness%20in%20human%20beings,to%20as%20%22welder’s%20flash%22.

Glacial Multimedia, Inc. (n.d.). Snow Blindness: The Top 3 Things you Should Know. Minnesota Eye Consultants. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.mneye.com/snow-blindness-top-3-things-know/#:~:text=Photokeratitis.,result%20in%20temporary%20vision%20loss.

Moran Eye Center. (2020). What is snow blindness & how can you prevent it? University of Utah Health. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2020/01/what-is-snow-blindness-and-prevention.php 

Porter, D. (2021). What is photokeratitis – including snow blindness? American Academy of Ophthalmology. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/photokeratitis-snow-blindness 

WebMD Editorial Contributors. (2021, June 22). What Is Snow Blindness? WebMD. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/eye-health/what-is-snow-blindness#:~:text=Snow%20blindness%2C%20or%20photokeratitis%2C%20is,own%20within%20a%20few%20days.

 

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