5 most common eye conditions caused by sun exposure
17 May 2022
What are the different types of UV rays?
We’re starting to experience warmer days and more hours of sunshine now that we’ve entered spring. While we’re all aware of the effects the sun can have on our skin, have we thought much about how it might impact our eyes? Sunglasses may set off your outfit perfectly, as well as making it easier to see on particularly bright days, but they actually also help to protect you from numerous eye conditions that can occur when you’re exposed to too much sun.
There are three different types of UV rays which are emitted by the sun; UVC, UVB and UVA. UVC rays are the highest energy rays and are therefore the most damaging to your eyes. These types of rays are most dangerous for your skin but many of them are blocked by the ozone layer which protects us from the full damage.
UVB rays are partially filtered out by the ozone layer but some can still reach us. It’s these rays that can give us sunburn, skin cancer and even cause damage to the cornea in our eyes. Too much exposure to UVB rays can also lead to some eye conditions which we’ll touch on later in this post.
UVA rays have much lower energy than UVB and UVC rays and are responsible for our tanned skin and sun-induced wrinkles. However, they can pass through the cornea to reach the lens and retina, bringing a whole host of new eye-related problems with them.
Photokeratitis is a condition that is often known as sunburn of the eyes. We might usually associate sunburn with our skin, but when the cornea is exposed to too many UV rays, it can become swollen and sore. You may experience symptoms such as blurry vision, red eye, watery eyes, light sensitivity or eye pain. The good news is that these symptoms are temporary, like actual sunburn, and the discomfort tends to go away in a day or two. You may find that using eye drops helps to ease the symptoms, while cold compresses are also known to help. You can read more about photokeratitis on our blog here.
A pinguecula (plural: pingueculae) is a small white or yellow bump in the conjunctiva. It is non-cancerous is it is caused to too much exposure to UV rays. Usually, a pinguecula grows on the side of your eyeball closest to your nose and it is made up of calcium, fats and protein. It can cause some irritation and symptoms such as dry eyes, redness and slightly blurry vision, but most people aren’t all that bothered by their pingueculae. If the symptoms are especially irritating, you can have it removed with a small surgical procedure. Find out more about pingueculae here.
A pterygium (plural: pterygia) is another growth on the eye caused by sun exposure, but it differs to a pinguecula in lots of ways. A pterygium can grow over your cornea after developing on your conjunctiva. This means it’s more likely to cause discomfort than a pinguecula is, as it can disrupt the distribution of tears across the surface of your eye. A pterygium also has its own blood vessels, causing it to appear red or pink in colour, therefore being more noticeable than a pinguecula. Some people choose to have their pterygia removed, both for cosmetic reasons as well as for comfort, but they are known to recur after being removed.
Cataracts form when the eye’s natural lens becomes cloudy as a result of eye tissues breaking down and proteins clumping together. They impair vision and can only be rectified with cataract surgery. Exposure to the sun (particularly UVB rays) has been found to bring forward the onset of cataracts – which occur naturally with age from your 60s onwards – and cause them to occur earlier. Symptoms of cataracts can include cloudy vision, dimmed colour vision, and halos appearing around bright lights.
5. Macular degeneration
The macula is a part of the retina, which is at the back of your eye. The macula is responsible for your central vision so, if your macula begins to degenerate, you may start to notice changes to your central vision. Symptoms can include straight lines appearing bent, faded colours, and light sensitivity. You can read more about the symptoms here. While macular degeneration, like cataracts, is often an age-related condition, sun exposure can bring it on sooner than it otherwise would occur. 1 in 200 people aged over 60 suffer with the condition, but as we all spend more time in the sun, this figure is sure to increase.
Malignant skin conditions
Aside from the 5 most common eye conditions brought on by UV rays, a rare condition that may be triggered by too much exposure to the sun is skin cancer on the eyelids. This could manifest itself as a lump or lump on eyelid that bleeds, or takes a long time to heal or disappear. Alternatively, you may experience inflammation of the eyelids. Knowing what to look out for helps you to seek the appropriate treatment promptly.
Protect your eyes from the sun
The main takeaway from this post is that it’s absolutely crucial to protect your eyes from the sun. Sunglasses are essential on a sunny day, and if you can avoid being directly in the sun between 11am and 3pm, then that’s even better. Invest in wraparound sunglasses if possible, and apply SPF to the skin around you eyelids to protect yourself from any sunburn or skin damage there. Above all, if you notice any changes to your vision or appearance of your eyes, seek medical advice to ensure you receive the correct treatment.
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