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UV Awareness Month: How to Protect Your Eyes from the Sun

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health

UV Safety Month Graphic

Southwest Florida is blessed with a golden sun year-round. But in the summer months when the sun’s harmful rays pose the greatest risks for sun-related injuries and diseases, we often remember to protect our skin but not our eyes.

In recognition of UV Safety Awareness Month, Dr. Jessica Kovarik, a board-certified ophthalmologist with Lee Physician Group, offers some tips for reducing UV light exposure and how to protect your eyes from damage.

“When you go outside in our beautiful Florida sunshine, you’re putting your eyes at risk from exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays,” Dr. Kovarik says. “We know that prolonged exposure to the sun isn’t healthy for our skin, but it also increases the risk for eye diseases such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and growths on the eye, including cancer.”

Sunlight is a form of radiation that reaches the earth as ultraviolet A (UV-A) ultraviolet B (UV-B). These UV rays from the sun are damaging to the skin and eyes, Dr. Kovarik notes.

“The ultraviolet rays harm our bodies because they’re able to penetrate human tissue,” Dr. Kovarik says. “You can get a sunburn from short-term overexposure to UV-B rays, while, usually, premature aging and skin cancer are side effects of prolonged UV-A exposure.”

Dr. Kovarik says the areas of the eye that UV rays typically damage include the eyelids and the surface tissue. Also, you can develop premature aging of the skin around your eyes, tumors and lesions to the sclera (the white part of the eye), and DNA changes that can lead to skin cancers on the eyelids.

UV radiation can cause serious eye conditions such as:

  • Keratitis, or corneal sunburn: UV exposure can cause painful burning of the cornea, the clear part of the eye that covers both the iris and pupil. It admits light and images to the retina.
  • Conjunctival cancers: These involve a clear mucous membrane that wraps around the eye. Cases of these types of eye cancers are rising, especially among older people.
  • Cataracts: This occurs when the lens of your eye gets cloudy. If left untreated, cataracts can cause progressive vision loss.
  • Macular degeneration: A leading cause of vision loss in people over age 55, macular degeneration is partly caused by cumulative UV damage to the retina, the back layer inside the eye. Made up of nerve cells, the retina senses light and sends signals to our brains so we can see.

Source: Skin Cancer Foundation

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, eyelid skin cancers account for 5 percent to 10 percent of all skin cancers and UV exposure causes at least 10 percent of cataract cases.

“When diagnosed and treated early, eyelid cancers usually respond well to surgery and follow-up care, with the eye and eyelid functioning intact,” says Dr. Kovarik. “But left untreated, they can be dangerous – with the potential to cause tissue damage and blindness.”

Protect those peepers

Excessive exposure to UV light is damaging to almost all structures of the eye, including the eyelid, Dr. Kovarik stresses. However, she notes, emerging research suggests that not enough exposure to sunlight during childhood may increase a child’s risk of developing myopia in later life.

Myopia, or nearsightedness, is a refractive error that makes far-away objects look blurry. It happens when the shape of the eye makes light focus in front of the retina (a light-sensitive layer of tissue in the back of your eye), instead of on it.

“There are some recent studies that show in some children spending extra time outside during the day actually helped their eyes to grow properly and reduced their risk of developing myopia,” Dr. Kovarik says. “Researchers are studying the effects of sunlight to find a balance between excessive and insufficient sun exposure.”

Nonetheless, proper skin and eye protection must always be worn during any period of time spent in the sun, Dr. Kovarik says.

“Whenever you’re outside in the sun, wear sunglasses and a hat, and protect your skin with sunscreen,” Dr. Kovarik advises. “Take these precautions even on foggy, cloudy or winter days when the sun can still damage your eyes and skin.”

Dr. Kovarik notes the most effective type of sunglasses offer 100 percent UV protection. “And if you can, wear wrap-around style glasses,” she adds. “They’re effective at minimizing the amount of UV rays entering from the side. Look for the sticker that says the item blocks 100 percent of UV-A/UV-B rays.”

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