Our eyes play a powerful role in bringing the world around us into focus and giving us visual perception of our surroundings. But none of this would be possible without light. In order for us to see, light enters our eyes where it is refracted and focused into a specific point on the retina at the back of the eye called the macula and then translated into electrical signals that travel to the brain via the optic nerves. However, while light is essential for sight, certain types of light, particularly ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) light, can cause significant damage to the eye over time if not guarded against. Unfortunately, the source of harmful UV light is also the most prevalent and difficult to avoid – the sun.
Common types of UV-related eye injuries
Over the years and depending on the length and duration of exposure, sunlight can take a heavy toll on the eyes, resulting in blurred vision, sensitivity to the light, excessive tearing, blindness, and more. The most common eye conditions and injuries caused by UV light include:
Cataracts – Research has linked UVB light directly to the development of cataracts, which occurs when the crystalline lens of the eye becomes gradually cloudy and opaque, potentially resulting in total blindness if not treated. Cataracts typically affect older individuals; however, excessive exposure to sunlight without adequate protection can increase the risk of developing this common eyesight problem.
Macular degeneration – The macula is located at the center of the ocular membrane called the retina and is responsible for clear, detailed vision. Over time and with exposure to UV light rays, the natural lens of the eye filters out the vast majority of damaging ultraviolet light before it has a chance to damage the retina and macula. The same is true for most artificial cataract lens implants. However, there is some evidence that suggests the retina and macula can become damaged by ultraviolet radiation, resulting in significant vision loss and conditions such as farsightedness.
Pterygium – Also known as surfer’s eye, pterygium occurs when the protective membrane of the outside of the eye called the conjunctiva becomes inflamed and grows out toward the optical center of the eye. It is typically associated with prolonged exposure to sunlight, especially when reflected off the surface of water or snow. Symptoms include dry, itchy eyes, excessive tearing, and a gritty sensation in the eyes.
Keratitis – Excessive exposure to harmful UV rays from the sun and tanning beds can actually cause the cornea to burn, not unlike a sunburn. The cornea is used to refract light within the eye and directs light to the retina. Keratitis can also be caused by an infection or parasite and results in inflammation of the cornea, which if left untreated may result in permanent damage.
Skin cancers of the eyelid – As with the rest of the body, the eyelids are vulnerable to the harsh effects of UV radiation and can not only be burned by overexposure, but can also develop varying degrees of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Symptoms of eyelid cancer include a bump or lump on the eyelid that bleeds and does not heal or disappear, inflammation of the eyelids, sudden loss of eyelashes, or a lesion.
If you notice that your vision has been impaired by the harmful effects of the sun or would like to learn more about protecting your eyesight for years to come, make an appointment with an experienced ophthalmologist as soon as possible. In many cases, vision damage can be repaired or improved through laser surgery, medication, and other treatments. It is in your best interest to schedule a thorough annual eye exam as well.
Protect your sight from UV light radiation
The skilled ophthalmology specialists at the USC Roski Eye Institute strongly suggest that people of all ages take necessary precautions to protect their eyes from the damaging toll of UV light radiation, including:
- Always wear UVA and UVB blocking sunglasses when outdoors or exposed to natural night.
- Do not use sunlamps, tanning beds, or tanning booths.
- Wear UV-blocking goggles when surfing, swimming, or snowboarding.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors.
- Avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight by staying in the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Expert vision care at the USC Roski Eye Institute
To make an appointment at the USC Roski Eye Institute, please call (323) 442-6335 or contact us to schedule a consultation today.