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Sunburned Eyes? Beware of Snow Blindness!

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Playing outside in a snowy winter wonderland can be magical. Under clear skies in the sunshine, the soft white landscape becomes just about irresistible, whether at home or travelling on a winter-weather get-away. 

Before you let your children run outside to build the most adorable snowman or fling themselves onto the ski slopes, make sure their eyes are well protected. Sun and snow can be a dangerous combination for both the eyes and skin. 

Sunlight Reflected in the Snow

We all know why we need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen in the summer. Winter, however, can be deceiving. It's an illusion to assume that we are safe from sunburns during the colder season. 

Snow acts as a powerful mirror for sunlight and magnifies the effects of UV rays which would otherwise be absorbed by the ground. As a result, the eyes are exposed to both the UV radiation bouncing back from the snowy carpet and the rays shining down directly from the sun. 

If your family is skiing or snowboarding up in the mountains, you need to be even more careful! UV rays are more powerful at higher altitudes. Another important factor to remember is that ultraviolet radiation penetrates through clouds, so even if the sun is hidden behind them, it can still damage your eyes.

Can I Get Sunburned Eyes?

As you may have already guessed, yes —it is possible to get sunburned eyes. The condition is called snow blindness, or photokeratitis. Although most people do not actually experience permanent vision loss, photokeratitis is usually painful, causes extreme sensitivity to light, and can take up to two weeks to fully heal. 

A single day of playing outside in the snow and being exposed to intensive sun glare can be enough to cause snow blindness— though usually with a delay of several hours following sun exposure. What’s worse, if the eyes are repeatedly sunburned there is a risk of long-term damage. 

Symptoms of Snow Blindness

Just like a typical skin sunburn appears only after having been exposed to the sun’s rays, the same is true for the eyes. One sign of overexposure to UV is a stinging or burning sensation in the eyes, or a feeling of having sand in your eyes after a day spent in the snow. 

When eyes are sunburned, they become highly sensitive to light, making it difficult to be outside. Other symptoms include blurred vision, watery eyes, and swollen eyelids. In rare cases, photokeratitis can even cause temporary vision loss, but it doesn't usually last longer than a day or two.

How Do I Protect My Eyes From Sunburn?

Prevent overexposure to sunlight by wearing sunglasses that absorb at least 95% of ultraviolet radiation when you go outside, no matter what time of year it is. An even more effective solution for winter activities is to strap on a pair of well-fitting UV protective sports eyewear, such as ski goggles. Wrap-around styles are ideal because they stay on even when you're active, and block the sun’s rays from entering your eyes from the sides too. 

For winter sports lovers, there are plenty of good reasons to wear protective eyewear, and what works well in sports can be good for play as well. 

How Can I Treat Sunburned Eyes?

It’s after the fact, and you’re suffering from photokeratitis… now what? Give your eyes a rest. 

  • Stay out of the sun for a few days until the symptoms die down. 
  • You may find it comforting to wear sunglasses even when indoors. 
  • For additional relief, place a cool, damp cloth over the closed eyelids while resting.
  • Don’t wear contact lenses until the eyes return to normal. 
  • Artificial tears can help keep the eyes moistened, soothe discomfort and promote healing. However, it's important to consult an eye doctor before running to the pharmacy, since some eye drops are not well-suited for this condition. You can give us a call at 347-514-9863.

Now that you know the risks and precautions to take, you’re all set to enjoy the winter wonderland! Dr. Mark Stadlen at American Eye Care is happy to help you protect yourself and your family from snow blindness, and offers expert treatment for sunburned eyes. 

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To our valued American Eye Care community,

While it is our goal to serve our community, in support of New York City’s efforts to increase social distancing and help curtail the spread of COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to temporarily close our office. As the situation unfolds, our highest priority is the health and safety of our patients, team members, and neighborhood. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, we will be reaching to let you know that American Eye Care will remain closed beyond our initial reopening date of March 30. We are closely monitoring the situation nationwide and in our local community, and will keep you informed when the decision is made to safely reopen the practice.

If you experience an emergency during this time, please reach out to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary.

New York Eye and Ear Infirmary 310 East 14th Street, New York, New York 10003, 212-979-4000

We hope you and your families stay safe and well, and we appreciate your understanding and continued support. We look forward to reopening our doors to our community.

Thank you!