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UV Radiation, the Sun, and Your Eyes: Risks, Symptoms and Treatment

UV radiation is one of several types of powerful rays emitted by the sun.

woman in sunglasses in the sun

Although UV radiation is what delivers Vitamin D directly to the body, prolonged exposure to them causes skin cancer and a number of eye conditions.

You should protect your eyes with wrap-around sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.

What Is UV Radiation?

UV radiation are rays emitted by the sun and many other types of artificial lighting. There are different types of UV radiation, each with varying levels of strength. UV radiation is beneficial for creating Vitamin D in the human body.

However, excessive exposure to UV radiation damages skin and causes enough damage to the eyes that it could lead to blindness. Using eye protection can prevent that damage from becoming extensive.

What Does UV Radiation Do to Eyes?

UV radiation can cause changes in your eye, just as it does to your skin when you get a sunburn. Too much time in the sun can lead to damage to the corneas, resulting in cataracts, certain types of eye cancer, pterygium and other growths that appear on the surface of the eye.

Photokeratitis can also occur. Also referred to as snow blindness, it occurs when UV radiation reflects off snow, water, ice or sand.

Eye Problems Caused by UV Radiation and the Sun

Cataracts are one of the most common types of eye diseases. Too much sun exposure harms the cornea as well as the eye lens. Excessive amounts of UV radiation exposure can lead to cancer of the cornea and other parts of the eyes.

With pterygium, growths develop directly on the surface of the eye and can lead to excessive irritation and discomfort.

You will need to visit an eye doctor to determine the full extent of any eye damage from sun exposure and to recommend measures you can take to protect your eyes.

How to Protect Your Eyes

There are many ways that you can protect your eyes from too much UV radiation. Wide-brimmed hats that shade your face are a good choice. The best protection, however, is wraparound sunglasses that prevent any light from making its way to your eyes.

Any type of sunglasses that offers some degree of protection is better than having no protection at all. You can also avoid going out into direct sunlight between 10 am and 2 pm when UV rays are the strongest.

UV Risk Factors

The more our ozone layer is depleted, the stronger the sun’s UV rays will become. This can result in several negative health conditions:

  • Cataracts, eye damage, and possible eye cancer
  • Skin damage and premature aging that leads to wrinkles and sunspots
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Skin cancers such as melanoma and nonmelanoma

Although it is important to spend some time in the sun to gain the benefits of UV light, too much can be extremely harmful. You only need a few minutes of sunlight a day to produce the amount of Vitamin D you that is required for optimum health. Anything over that amount can begin to damage the skin and eyes.

UV radiation can be found almost everywhere in varying degrees. Mercury vapor lighting (often found in gymnasiums) is just one source that can be found inside. While this is much less dangerous than the UV radiation from the sun, it still has the potential to cause damage.

Knowing what types of lighting cause UV radiation will help you limit your exposure. Be mindful of how much time you spend outside and always wear eye protection that has a UV rating. This provides additional protection that will lessen your risk of potential eye damage.

FAQs

Can UV radiation damage your eyes?

Yes! UV radiation can have the same effect on your eyes as it does on your skin. Once the cells are damaged, the resulting illness or injury can eventually lead to partial or complete blindness. The good news is that you can prevent some of the damage by using appropriate eye protection.

How long does it take for UV light to damage your eyes?

Depending on how strong the UV light is, it may only take a few minutes of exposure to damage the surface of your eyes. Snow blindness, for example, may only take a few minutes to cause irreparable damage. Cataracts and the growth of pterygium may require extended exposure to develop.

References

  1. UV Radiation. (June 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  2. The Sun, UV Light and Your Eyes. (June 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  3. Health Effects of UV Radiation. Environmental Protection Agency.

Last Updated April 27, 2022

Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.