You (hopefully) already know the importance of using sunscreen every day, not only to protect your skin from sunburn, but to prevent skin cancer and other damage. You also probably know that the sun's UV rays can severely damage your hair, causing both dryness and discoloration.
But as if all that weren't enough, there's another part of your body that is also susceptible to sun damage: your eyes. Exposure to UV light can cause a condition known as photokeratitis, which, at the risk of oversimplifying things, can essentially be thought of as sunburned eyes (and yes, it is as painful as it sounds).Keep reading to learn all about the condition and, more importantly, how to prevent it from happening in the first place.
What is photokeratitis?
"Photokeratitis is an eye condition that occurs when UV light damages the surface of the cornea, the transparent part of the eye covering the iris and pupil, and the conjunctiva, the tissue covering the whites of your eyes and the inside of your eyelids," Hilal-Campo explains. It's also known as ultraviolet keratitis, and it's often appropriately described as eye sunburn, Amra adds.
Like a sunburn on the skin, photokeratitis can be very painful and uncomfortable. Symptoms can include severe eye pain, redness, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tearing and a feeling of having a foreign body in the eyes, Amra says. Headaches, seeing halos around lights and even temporary vision loss are also possible.
What causes photokeratitis?
Simply put, your eyes can get photokeratitis from the sun, through direct or indirect exposure to UV rays. "More generally, it's the latter, because fortunately, most of us don't spend time looking directly at the sun," Amra explains. "Indirect UV exposure most often comes from reflections off snow, ice, sand and water." In fact, there is even an intense version of photokeratitis known as snow blindness, in which UV rays and cold temperatures contribute to damage to the ocular surface.
Because our eyes are always exposed to some amount of UV light, it's important to note that photokeratitis is the result of prolonged and extreme exposure, usually six to 12 hours, Hilal-Campo says. It is also more likely to occur in areas with a higher UV light index, such as mountains and places closer to the equator, according to Amra. TL; DR: You're probably not going to develop sunburned eyes just by spending an hour outside, even on a very sunny day.
As far as direct exposure is concerned, one of the most well-known causes of photokeratitis is looking at the sun during a solar eclipse. Hilal-Campo says that it can also cause more problems than just the serious, including retinal burns and even permanent vision loss. Our two experts also point out that, along with the sun, exposure to artificial UV sources - tanning beds, sunlamps, laser light and arc welding light - can also cause photokeratitis.
It's worth mentioning that, like a sunburn on the skin, the symptoms of photokeratitis often have a delayed onset, six to 12 hours after exposure, according to Amra and Hilal-Campo. In addition, "the severity of photokeratitis, like the severity of sunburn, is related to the duration and amount of UV sun exposure," Hilal-Campo notes.
Another similarity between photokeratitis and cutaneous sunburn: "Lighter eyes, like lighter skin, are more susceptible to sun damage due to naturally lower levels of melanin," she says. That's why it's especially important for people with blue, gray or green eyes to wear sunglasses, even though it's something everyone should do. (More on that in a moment.)
How to treat photokeratitis?
The good news: "In most cases, the symptoms of photokeratitis are temporary and usually go away on their own within a few days," says Amra. There's really nothing you can do to actually treat the condition in the meantime, but there are things you can do to help relieve some of the uncomfortable symptoms. Removing contact lenses (if you wear them) and staying in a dark room is helpful, as is applying a cold washcloth to your sunburned eyes and/or using lubricating eye drops.
How to prevent photokeratitis?
While photokeratitis usually goes away on its own fairly quickly, constant UV exposure can lead to more serious problems, such as retinal burns, as well as increase your risk of developing certain eye cancers, cataracts and macular degeneration, according to Amra. Point being, protecting your eyes from the sun is just as important as protecting your skin.
The easiest way to do it? Wear a good pair of sunglasses. Hilal-Campo recommends looking for sunglasses marked UV 400, which means they block 100 % of UVA and UVB rays, as well as wraparound styles for more comprehensive protection. "Wearing a wide-brimmed hat or sunshade will also give you an extra layer of protection, especially if your sunglass frame is smaller or doesn't have side panels," Amra adds.
The last takeaway
Photokeratitis can be extremely painful and uncomfortable, although it usually goes away quickly. In addition to never looking directly at the sun, wearing sunglasses, especially if you are going to be outdoors in highly reflective areas for an extended period of time, is the best way to prevent the disease.