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Can You Sunburn Your Eyes?

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A young woman with her hand above her eyebrows, trying to provide shade to her eyes from the scorching sun.

The sun’s rays can reach your eyes in all conditions, from bright sunny mornings to grey, overcast afternoons. And while most lather their skin in SPF daily, few may realize that eyes are also vulnerable to the dangerous effects of the sun.

Sunburn isn’t just for your skin—your eyes can also experience symptoms from exposure to the sun. Sun exposure can cause a range of problems, from discomfort to damage to your eyesight. 

With the right sunglasses and regular comprehensive eye exams, you can help prevent the sun’s UV rays from inflicting lasting damage on your eyes.

Photokeratitis: Sunburn of the Eyes

Sunburned eyes are a condition that occurs due to overexposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Also known as photokeratitis, this condition is like sunburn on the skin. Sunburned eyes typically happen when the eyes are not appropriately protected from the sun, such as wearing sunglasses without UV protection or spending excessive amounts of time in the sun without proper eyewear.

The effects of sunburned eyes can be felt quickly, with a range of symptoms including:

  • Gritty sensation
  • Soreness
  • Headaches
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Blurred vision
  • Excessive tearing
  • Sensitivity to light

Specific structures of your eyes are more susceptible to UV damage, such as:

  • Cornea
  • Retina
  • Lens
  • Conjunctiva

Prolonged exposure to UV light can elevate your risk of developing certain eye conditions, including:

What Are the Causes of Sunburned Eyes?

The most significant cause of sunburned eyes is prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays. Spending extended periods out in the sun with little protection can cause considerable damage to the delicate outer layer of your eyes.

The 3 types of UV rays—UVA, UVB, and UVC—can impact your eyes differently. UVA rays affect the skin around your eyes, while UVB rays are slightly stronger and are most responsible for sunburns of the skin and eyes. While most UVC rays are automatically filtered in the atmosphere, these powerful waves can significantly damage your body’s cells, elevating the risk of skin cancers around the delicate skin of your eyes.

Factors that increase the risk of developing sunburned eyes include: 

  • High altitudes
  • Proximity to reflective surfaces
  • Time of day

The sun isn’t the only source of UV light that can damage your ocular structures. Welding torches and tanning beds require eye protection to preserve your eyes’ comfort, long-term health, and visual acuity.

How to Prevent Sunburned Eyes

Fortunately, there are preventive measures you can take to protect your eyes from sunburn. Wearing protective eyewear outdoors, including sunglasses, a hat, and UV-blocking contact lenses, can significantly reduce your risk of photokeratitis.

Ensure that your eyewear provides full-spectrum UV protection as further protection. Moreover, staying in the shade, especially when the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM, is also a smart strategy to keep your eyes safe.

What to Look for In Sunglasses

Not all sunglasses are the same, and while stylish shades can transform your look, your lenses should also provide optimal protection for your eyes. Your optician can completely customize your sunglasses, from flattering frames for your face to valuable lenses for your lifestyle.

A few elements to look for when browsing your options include:

  • 100% UV protection: choosing sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection or a UV400 rating is ideal
  • Size and shape: the larger the lenses, the greater the protection, and wraparound frames block light from entering through the periphery
  • Lifestyle: having multiple pairs of sunglasses for each activity, from sports shades to professional frames, provides variety. Polarized or tinted lenses can be beneficial for certain sports or outdoors, or transition lenses may appeal to you for everyday wear

What to Do If You Have Sunburned Eyes?

When you experience sunburned eyes, you can manage mild discomfort with a few remedies. While the symptoms of sunburned eyes can be minor, addressing the condition as soon as possible is crucial to avoid long-term damage.

  • Take a break from contact lenses
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes
  • Apply a cool compress
  • Use artificial tears
  • Always wear your shades

During a comprehensive eye exam, your eye care team can provide personalized advice to prevent sun damage, relieve discomfort from prolonged sun exposure, and monitor your eyes for signs of UV-related eye conditions.

A female optometrist examining the eyes of a young man using a medical device to detect potential eye problems.

Maintain Your Eye Health

The bottom line is that sunburned eyes can be a real danger. Taking the necessary precautions to protect your eyes and maintain your vision health is essential. When out in the sun, guard your eyes and invest in quality protective eyewear to block those harmful UV rays. Visit your eye care team at Dr. Jennifer L. Shane & Associates for an eye exam and to shop our optical department for the right pair of sunglasses.

Don’t wait until you experience the symptoms of photokeratitis; take action now to keep your eyes healthy. UV protection is not solely reserved for the skin. Your eyes need it too.

Written by Dr. Jennifer Shane

Dr. Jennifer Shane is native to Reno, Nevada. She attended the University of Reno and the University of Las Vegas, Nevada where she received a Bachelor of Science in Economics. During college she began working for an Optometrist that inspired her to study Optometry. She continued her education at the Illinois College of Optometry where she received her Bachelor of Science in Visual Science and Doctorate of Optometry in 1999. Additionally, Dr. Shane completed residency training in Ocular Disease at the Illinois College of Optometry in 2000. Besides seeing patients, Dr. Shane enjoys pickleball, and spending time with her two sons and two pugs.
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