07/07/19Eye damage and the UV risk factor
Now that summer is underway, we are looking forward to making the best of the great British outdoors. Holidays, festivals and trips to the beach are on the agenda so it’s time to get prepared. We are all aware of the damage that sunburn can cause to our skin, and we shouldn’t forget that harmful UV can damage our eyes too. With this in mind, sunglasses are a summer essential!
How does UV damage our eyes?
There are two types of UV which you should protect against, UVA and UVB. If UVA penetrates the eye it can harm your central vision and the macula. UVA rays cannot be felt as they do not burn you, but they are a leading cause of skin cancer. In contrast, UVB has a shorter wavelength and we can feel it as it gives us sunburn. Not only can UVB burn around our eyelids, it gets absorbed into the cornea & the lens which can cause lasting damage. Understanding the risk factors can help us all make more sensible decisions to protect our eyes in the sunshine.
Risk factors and causes of eye damage
Cataracts are one of the most common eye complaints. A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most people get cataracts naturally as they grow older, but over exposure to UV can cause them to develop prematurely. Whilst cataracts can be surgically removed, prevention is always better than intervention!
There are two types of cancer that we look out for as Optometrists. Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) is the most common skin cancer which we see around the eyes. BCC rarely spreads to other parts of the body but is locally invasive and should be dealt with promptly. In parts of the world where UV exposure is high, the incidence increases, for example in Australia, it may be 3 – 4x higher.
The most serious type of skin cancer caused by sun damage is melanoma. Like BCC, this may form around the eyes but it spreads around the body. Both of these can be avoided by wearing eyewear which covers the skin around the eyes and doubling up with a sun hat.
The skin around the eyelids is the most sensitive on our body and the first to show change from sun damage and aging. Long term UV exposure causes wrinkles, blotchy pigmentation, visible blood vessels and loose, rough skin. We all want to preserve our youthful looks and avoiding harmful UV can help. Don’t worry, you can still lounge in the sun, just make sure you wear sunglasses with a protective UV filter.
Because UVA penetrates the eye, the macula can become exposed to dangerous rays and this is thought to be a risk factor for macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of blindness in the aging population due to loss of central vision. Wearing sunglasses can stop harmful UV rays from reaching your macula and therefore preserve your eye health.
Overexposure to sun can cause you to develop a pinkish, triangular tissue growth on the cornea of the eye known as a Pteryigium. These typically start on the edge of the cornea nearest the nose and slowly get bigger. Whilst they are benign, Pteryigia can be unsightly and cause discomfort or blurry vision. Those who spend a lot of time outdoors or near the water without sufficient eye protection are most at risk and sometimes they are called “Surfers Eye”. Wearing protective eyewear is the best defence!
Read our next blog for our recommendations on how to protect your eyes in the sun.