Is It Possible For Your Eyes To Be Sunburned?

We all know that using sunscreen and protecting our skin from exposure to UV rays from the sun is important. However, there is constantly one area of our face that we fail to protect with sunscreen – i.e. our eyes. So the next time you decide to head out to the beach in the summertime or you go skiing on the slopes without wearing the proper and protective eye gear, remember that it is possible for your eyes to get sunburned in exactly the same way that your skin does. In fact, sunburned eyes are typically caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun. And eyes can also get severely sunburned. This condition is referred to as photokeratitis and though rare, it is possible for your eyes to get sunburned.

Is It Possible For Your Eyes To Get Sunburned?

Is It Possible For Your Eyes To Get Sunburned?

Yes, definitely your eyes can get sunburned easily. Photokeratitis, also known as ultraviolet keratitis, is a condition where the eye’s cornea becomes inflamed.(5) The cornea is the clear covering that is present on the front of your eye.(4) Overexposure to UV rays from the sun can cause you to get severely sunburned eyes and protecting your eyes from UV rays is the only way to avoid getting your eyes sunburned.(1)

Over a period of time, repeated and too much exposure to the sun’s rays can cause certain types of eye diseases to also occur. These include:

What are the Symptoms of Photokeratitis?

When your eyes are overexposed to UV light, it can cause temporary sunburn or even permanent damage can take place in several areas of the eye, including:

  • Conjunctiva.
  • Retina.
  • Lens.
  • The thin, surface layer of the cornea.

The conjunctiva of the eye is a thin, mucous membrane that is made up of two sections. One section that covers and protects the white part of your eye, known as bulbar conjunctiva and the other section comprises of the inner surface of the lower and upper eyelids, known as palpebral conjunctiva. Both or either of these two sections can become sunburned through overexposure to UV rays from the sun.

Similar to the skin getting sunburned, the intensity of eye sunburn can also vary. The longer your exposure to the sun’s UV rays, the more intense will be your sunburn and your symptoms. The symptoms of photokeratitis are known to be uncomfortable and include the following:

  • Pain in the eyes.(5)
  • Gritty feeling in the eyes, feeling as if you have sand in your eyes.
  • Headache.(5)
  • Twitching sensation in the eyelids.
  • Swelling of the eyelids.(5)
  • Tearing.
  • Redness of the eyes.(5)
  • Blurry vision.(5)
  • Seeing halos.(5)
  • Sensitivity to bright light.(5)
  • Temporary vision loss (a rare symptom)(5)
  • Constricted and pinpointed pupils, a condition known as miosis.
  • Color changes in your vision (another rare symptom).

Can Sunburned Eyes be Treated?

Photokeratitis is a condition that tends to simply resolve on its own within a period of two or three days. Treatment for sunburned eyes revolves around reducing the symptoms and managing them to make sure you feel more comfortable. If you suspect that you may have sunburned eyes, then you should see a doctor immediately to understand how severe the sunburn is. Your doctor is likely to recommend antibiotic eye drops or pain relievers to manage your symptoms.

There are also some at-home treatments you can use for getting relief from your symptoms of sunburned eyes. These include:

  • Control The Urge To Rub Your Eyes: You will feel an intense urge to rub your eyes to relieve the gritty feeling, however, rubbing your eyes will not provide you any relief and will only cause further irritation to your eyes. So avoid rubbing your sunburned eyes.
  • Remove Your Contact Lenses: If you wear contact lenses, then you should immediately remove them to allow your sunburned eyes to heal.
  • Try Medication: There are some over-the-counter pain medications for a headache that should provide you relief in your symptoms of sunburned eyes as well.
  • Using a Cool Compress: You can try placing a cold compress over your closed eyes and rest for 5 minutes to alleviate the symptoms of sunburned eyes.
  • Always Wear Your Sunglasses: You need to ensure that you wear your sunglasses whenever you are outside in the sun. Wearing sunglasses reduces the impact of bright light, especially on already sunburned eyes.
  • Use Eye Drops: There are many types of artificial tears available over-the-counter that you can use to lubricate your eyes.
  • Stop Wearing Makeup: If you have sunburned eyes, then you need to skip the eye makeup till your eyes heal. Remove eyelash extensions and avoid using makeup around your eyes while your sunburned eyes heal.
  • Keep Your Sunburned Eyes Clean: Avoid getting chlorinated water or saltwater in your sunburned eyes and if you are going to swim, you need to protect your eyes by wearing airtight goggles. Better to avoid swimming as well during the time your sunburned eyes are healing.

Precautions to Avoid Sunburned Eyes

Many people believe that your eyes are naturally protected by the process of blinking and that they can only get sunburned eyes if you stare directly into the sun. However, do not make the mistake of assuming this. The sun’s rays can be very intense in many different environments and you do not need to be staring directly into the sun to get sunburned eyes. UV rays can harm your eyes in several different ways.

  1. In water: Sun rays can reflect off of sand and water and cause UV exposure to the eyes.(6) This can happen when you are at a lake, beach, boat, dock, pool, or anywhere where the sun meets the water directly. So make sure to take the appropriate precautions to prevent sunburned eyes.
  2. In the city: Just because you are living in a city, do not think that your eyes are safe without wearing protective eye gear. Sunlight can easily reflect off of cars, building, and even concrete streets to hurt your eyes. And it does not even have to be a hazy day or a sunny day. UV rays can easily affect your eyes and your skin even through a cloud cover over the city. So always make sure to keep your eyes protected and covered accordingly.
  3. On the mountains: Sunlight reflecting off of snow and ice can also cause damage to your eyes. If you actively participate in sports such as snowboarding, skiing, mountain climbing, then you are at a high risk of photokeratitis if you do not use proper protection for your eyes. This particular type of photokeratitis is known as snow blindness.
  4. Artificial sources of UV light: There are often some artificial sources of UV light include reptile basking bulbs and arc welding machines. Reptile basking bulbs are a type of UVB bulb that is commonly used in reptile enclosures and pet stores. Sometimes even tanning beds can cause photokeratitis since these tanning beds emit UVA instead of UVB rays. Tanning beds produce up to 20 times more UV rays than the sun even being highly dangerous to your eyes. If you are using tanning beds, then it is crucial that you protect your eyes while using them.

How to Protect your Eyes from Getting Sunburned?

Just wearing sunglasses will not protect your eyes. This is because not all sunglasses are created equally. So to make sure that your eyes are getting the protection they need, you need to wear sunglasses or eyeglasses that block or absorb up to 99 to 100 percent of the UV rays. Furthermore, wearing a wide-brimmed hat will also help keep your eyes shielded from sun rays. When you are out skiing or you are doing snow sports, then wear goggles or sunglasses that will provide you with the same level of protection. Wearing a helmet can also help you keep your eyes safe from UV rays.(2)

When Do You Need To See A Doctor For Sunburned Eyes?

Usually, sunburned eyes are not a serious issue that warrants a visit to the doctor. However, if your symptoms continue to trouble you for over a day or two, then you should consult a doctor. A specialist doctor, such as an optometrist or an ophthalmologist, will prescribe you the medications if needed.

Keep in mind that the longer you are exposed to UV rays, the higher will be the severity of your sunburn. It also increases the risk of developing serious eye conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration or cataracts. So, if you are having problems with your vision, you should consult a doctor at once.

You also need to consult a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Sensitivity to light or glare.
  • Seeing halos.
  • Having blurred, dim, fuzzy or distorted vision.
  • Shadowy areas that form in the middle of your field of vision.
  • Having problems with night vision.

Eyelids, in particular, are the most vulnerable area of your body. Eyelids are easily prone to skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma or even malignant melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma, when it occurs in the eyelids can also spread to the entire eye itself.(3)

So if you experience any of the following symptoms, you must consult a dermatologist immediately:

  • Loss of eyelashes.
  • Discolored eye growth that appears to be brown, black or red.
  • Breaks appearing on the skin that refuse to go away or any changes in skin texture.
  • Thickening or swelling of skin.

Conclusion

Your eyes are also equally as vulnerable as your skin to getting sunburned from being overexposed to UV rays. Photokeratitis will typically go away within a couple of days, but in the short term, it can be quite a painful and uncomfortable condition. In the long term, though, the risk of serious conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration, eyelid cancer or cataracts increase drastically if you keep getting photokeratitis regularly.

It is, therefore, important to protect your eyes from the sun. Take the required precaution when you are outside and also take special care when you are in high altitudes where the air is thin and the sun’s rays are particularly strong.

References:

  1. Roh, S. and Weiter, J.J., 1994. Light damage to the eye. The Journal of the Florida Medical Association, 81(4), pp.248-251.
  2. Behar-Cohen, F., Baillet, G., de Ayguavives, T., Garcia, P.O., Krutmann, J., Peña-García, P., Reme, C. and Wolffsohn, J.S., 2014. Ultraviolet damage to the eye revisited: eye-sun protection factor (E-SPF®), a new ultraviolet protection label for eyewear. Clinical ophthalmology (Auckland, NZ), 8, p.87. much?, H. (2019). How much sun is too much?. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK321117/ [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4655862/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5820813/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK321117/

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