We all enjoy being outside on a sunny day. However, we might not always remember to protect our eyes from the sun. This is important to do as ultraviolet (UV) rays coming from the sun can do much to age and damage our eyes over the long term. Explained below are some notable effects of long term, repeated, and intense sun exposure to the eyes.
UV Light Worsens Cataracts
A cataract is a yellowing or clouding of the natural lens within the eye that acts to focus light onto the sensory back of the eye, the retina. This causes the world to appear more blurry and less bright with less visibility of darker colors and more glare. The refractive error or glasses prescription also changes with cataract formation.
change occurs naturally with age and is ultimately very treatable with surgery, but the process is sped up with excessive sun exposure and can lead to various types of cataracts.
When purchasing sunglasses, one should ensure that they indeed block out the required UV rays, and polarized lenses can also be considered. These drastically decrease glare coming off of horizontal surfaces like water or snow and the resulting visual discomfort.
Pinguecula and Pterygium
Pterygia and pingueculae are opaque bumps or growths often seen on the white parts of the eye to the right and left of the colored part, the iris.
They represent the same process in the eye – the breakdown of tissue due to UV damage – but differ in that a pterygium extends onto the clear front of the eye, the cornea, while a pinguecula does not.
They usually have no consequence other than appearance, but sometimes can become inflamed and irritated or contribute to eye dryness or contact lens discomfort. UV exposure increases the likelihood of their development but other factors such as increasing age or working outdoors for several years can also contribute.
Treatment is usually not needed for these conditions but antiinflammatory eye drops can be used to decrease inflammation if it develops. Surgical excision is also an option if the growth is cosmetically bothersome, on its way to blocking vision, or repeatedly causing discomfort.
Over the counter artificial tears, gels, or ointments can be used for comfort. Again, sunglasses are helpful in reducing the risk of development and progression.
Macular Degeneration and Solar Retinopathy
Staring directly at the sun for extended periods of time, like when viewing an eclipse without sun protection for the eyes, can damage the retina. The main symptom of this solar retinopathy is decreased vision due to burning of the light absorbing cells at the back of the eye.
There is no treatment for this but vision may gradually improve within up to six months. The amount and speed of recovery is inversely proportional to the amount and duration of sun exposure.
Simple ways to prevent this condition are to not stare directly at the sun for extended periods of time and to wear specific protection if needed as weld flashes, lasers, and operating room lighting can also cause this damage.
Increased sun exposure without proper protection can also increase the risk of age related macular degeneration as one becomes older, which can cause irreversible damage to the retina and one’s central vision. Proper sun protection is thus also key for reducing the long term likelihood of this condition.
Sunglasses Can Help Prevent Eyelid Cancers
The eyelid is composed of skin and is thus susceptible to skin cancers like any other part of the body. Excessive sun exposure to the eyelids, especially in fair skinned individuals, can add up over many years of sun damage to eventually cause a buildup of cell mutations which can become cancer.
Examples include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, sebaceous gland carcinoma, and melanoma, with each of these having varying levels of overall risk and different features and appearances. Proper sunscreen application to the eyelids, as well as other exposed parts of the body, and the use of sunglasses can help prevent these cancers.