Sun safety: How to protect your eyes

Your vision is unique - Opthamologist Gerard Sutton explains how and why you should protect it.

We all welcome summer, but as a medical professional I also know that with the sun comes ultraviolet radiation (UVR).

While most people are aware of the dangers of too much sun exposure, the problem is that harmful UVR is invisible to the human eye – and because it contains more energy than visible light, there’s a much greater risk of damage.

The UV spectrum can be broken down into three categories: UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. Fortunately UV-B and UV-C are almost entirely absorbed by the ozone layer. However, most UV-A radiation passes through and therefore may be absorbed by the structures of the eye.

That’s why I suggest that everyone take precaution with UVR exposure, regardless of the weather.

dad and daughter wearing sunglasses at the beach

What can the sun do to my eyes?

Harmful UV light can cause a number of eye issues, including:

  • Cataracts

Studies show there is a relation between frequent exposure to UVR and premature cataracts. There’s evidence that doubling the total UV-B exposure over time may increase the risk by as much as 60%. A further study found that wearing UV protection from a young age reduces the risk of cataracts by around 25% compared to those who began wearing sunglasses after age 40. Once a cataract has developed, cataract surgery is the only method of preventing vision loss.

  • Pterygium

This is a fleshy growth over the cornea that occurs with ongoing exposure to sun, wind and sand (thus its nickname, ‘surfer’s eye’). Pterygiums develop over time and may reach the point of requiring surgical removal.

  • Eye cancers

Basal cell carcinomas (BCC) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) are malignant tumours of the eyelid. BCCs are responsible for the majority of eyelid cancers and fortunately rarely metastisise. SCCs remain considerably more dangerous. Research has shown that the development of SCCs can be attributed to extensive ongoing sun exposure. Surgical removal is necessary and, in some cases, may need to be aggressive.

  • Photokeratitis

Just as the skin can be damaged from exposure to UVR, the eye itself can suffer from ‘sunburn’. This is called photokeratitis and represents a superficial yet painful burn of the outmost layer of the eye. Treatment is usually lubricants and rest, however medical treatment may be necessary.

“Sun safety isn’t just for when you’re at the beach – it’s important every time you step outside.”

How to avoid eye issues

As with the skin, protection is key – the earlier in life, the better. Make sure you and your children:

  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses.
  • Add further protection by wearing a broad brimmed hat.
  • Limit the exposure of UV radiation to your eyes as much as possible.

Remember, this isn’t just when you’re at the beach – it’s every time you step outside.

Which sunglasses offer the best UV protection?

Anything sold for eyewear (cosmetic or otherwise) must be labeled according to the AS/NZS 1067:2003 standards. The categories are rated 0 to 4 (from minimal to high level protection).

I would recommend a category 2 at the very least. Unsurprisingly, I would prefer level 3 for most people, and highly recommend category 4 for people who work outdoors, or spend a lot of time outdoors.

Be sun smart and you’ll be able to enjoy the outdoors for years to come.

Your vision is precious. Keep your eyes safe from UV light to prevent cataracts, eye cancers and other optical issues.

Find a Medibank Members’ Choice vision specialist at medibank.com.au

Recommended reading - Issue Nine Spring 2014

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