How to stay safe while enjoying the sun.

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Wearing sunglasses can help protect your vision. Getty Images

While winter weather may be keeping you indoors this February, spring break is around the corner.

And if you’re planning to go somewhere sunny, don’t forget to pack your sunglasses.

While you might look at a pair of shades as a prop for your vacation photos, they actually serve a much more important purpose: protecting your eyes from damaging UVA and UVB rays, which could lead to a serious vision disease known as macular degeneration.

Before you head out to enjoy the sun, here’s what you need to know.

When it comes to vision problems, macular degeneration is one to keep an eye on throughout your life.

Also known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the disease is a leading cause of vision loss among people age 50 and older, according to the National Eye Institute. More than 10 million Americans are affected by the disease, making it more prevalent than cataracts and glaucoma combined, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.

The condition causes the macula, a part of the back of the eye near the retina, to deteriorate. While it doesn’t impact peripheral vision, macular degeneration can affect how well a person sees what’s right in front of them — like a beautiful view of the beach on a tropical getaway.

“People with macular degeneration will experience a gradual loss of clarity, particularly when they’re looking at people’s faces or reading words on the TV. It causes a dark spot in the center of their vision,” said Samuel Pierce, OD, president of the American Optometric Association. “It’ll also cause distortion in the vision where if you look at window blinds, you’ll see waves.”

There are two types of macular degeneration: atrophic, also known as dry AMD, and neovascular, or wet AMD. Dry makes up around 85 to 90 percent of all AMD cases. It causes small yellow deposits called drusen to form under the macula, which eventually leads to central vision loss.

“Wet macular degeneration causes unstable blood vessels to grow in the layers of the retina and leak blood, lipids, and serum. Scar tissue then develops and kills the photo receptors, which then causes vision in that area to go away,” said Pierce.

While it’s not entirely clear what causes macular degeneration in one person instead of another, doctors have zeroed in on key risk factors that increase someone’s likelihood for the disease.

“Caucasians have a higher risk [than African-Americans or Hispanics/Latinos], and women tend to get it at an earlier age than men,” said Pierce.

People with certain genes or a direct relative who has AMD are more likely to get the disease. There’s a heightened risk of AMD in people age 60 and up, according to the National Eye Institute.

Making healthy lifestyle decisions can help ward off the disease and promote overall eye health. A 2013 review of studies related to AMD found that smoking is a major risk factor for the condition.

Eating a nutritious diet, keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol at normal levels and exercising on a regular basis may reduce your risk of the disease. Furthermore, doctors recommend wearing proper eye protection outdoors.

“When we think about the link between vacation and macular degeneration, the principle concern is sun exposure,” said Dr. Howard R. Krauss, surgical neuro-ophthalmologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

Lowering your risk of macular degeneration requires making healthy decisions throughout your life.

However, there are some things you can do on your next vacation to help prevent macular degeneration:

  • Wear sunglasses. “The sun-related diseases people develop are not related to the vacation they had last week,” said Krauss. “They’re related to the vacation they had 40 years ago. Whether it causes macular degeneration, aging of the skin or cancer, sun exposure is a cumulative thing over a long period of time and needs to be limited.” Look for sunglasses that offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays, and be sure to wear them when you’re outdoors.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Wearing a broad-brimmed hat can be beneficial at keeping some sunlight out of your eyes, said Pierce. It also has the added advantage of shading your skin from damaging UV rays.
  • Don’t smoke. People who occasionally smoke at home may be tempted to light up a cigarette when they’re on spring break. But if you’re trying to take care of your eyes and your overall health, resist the urge to smoke on vacation — or ever.
  • Eat a nutritious diet. “A heart-healthy diet rich in antioxidants can support the eye. Eat leafy vegetables high in lutein, like spinach,” said Pierce.
  • Keep up with your medication. If you take medication to manage your blood pressure or cholesterol levels, don’t forget to pack it in your suitcase. “Managing heart conditions can help reduce your risk of macular degeneration,” said Pierce.
  • Exercise. Incorporate some physical activities in your spring break itinerary. It can help keep your weight at a healthy level, which subsequently helps maintain normal blood pressure and reduces the risk of macular degeneration.
  • Test yourself. A portable vision test from the Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan can help you check for signs of macular degeneration, whether you’re at home or lounging by a resort pool. Stare at the paper grid. If you notice that the lines get wavy or your vision becomes darker, make an appointment with your doctor to get it checked out.