The next time you get ready to head to the beach or ski slopes without protective eye gear, take a moment to remember that eyes can get sunburned the same way skin can.
Severely sunburned eyes are caused by overexposure to UV (ultraviolet) rays, like those emitted by the sun. This condition is known as photokeratitis.
Photokeratitis, or ultraviolet keratitis, is an inflammation of the cornea, which is the clear covering of the front of the eye.
Protecting your eyes from UV rays is the only way to avoid getting them sunburned. Over time, too much sun exposure can cause specific types of eye diseases to occur. These include:
- age-related macular degeneration
- eyelid cancer
When your eyes get too much exposure to UV light, temporary sunburn or permanent damage can occur in several areas, including:
- the thin, surface layer of the cornea
The conjunctiva is a thin, mucus membrane comprised of two sections. One section covers and protects the whites of the eye (bulbar conjunctiva). The other section covers the inner surface of the upper and lower eyelids (palpebral conjunctiva). Either or both sections can become sunburned.
As with skin, eye sunburn can vary in intensity. The longer your exposure to UV rays, the more intense your symptoms are likely to be. The symptoms of photokeratitis can be uncomfortable. They include:
- gritty feeling, as if you have sand in your eyes
- eye pain
- twitching sensation in the eyelid
- blurry vision
- sensitivity to bright light
- seeing halos
- constricted, pinpoint pupils (miosis)
- temporary vision loss or color changes in your vision (these symptoms are rare)
Photokeratitis usually resolves on its own within one to two days. Treatment for this condition typically centers around reducing symptoms so you can feel more comfortable. If you suspect that you have sunburned eyes, your doctor may recommend pain relievers or antibiotic eye drops.
You can also try a few at-home treatments for symptom relief:
- Remove contact lenses. This should be done immediately to let your eyes heal.
- Resist the urge to rub your eyes. This will not provide relief and could further irritate the eye.
- Use a cool compress. Place compresses over closed eyes and rest.
- Try medication. Over-the-counter pain medication for headache relief could help.
- Always have your sunnies. Make sure to wear your sunglasses to reduce the impact of bright light.
- Get eye drops. Use artificial tears to lubricate eyes.
- Skip the makeup. Using makeup and false eyelashes can further irritate the eyes.
- Talk to your doctor. If you wear eyelash extensions, ask your doctor if it’s better to have them removed or to leave them on while your eyes heal.
- Keep eyes clear. Avoid getting salt water or chlorinated water in your eyes. If you swim, protect your eyes with airtight goggles.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your eyes are protected by blinking, or from not staring directly into the sun. UV rays can be intense in several different environments.
Sun can reflect off of water and sand, causing UV exposure. This can occur in the following locations:
- anywhere the sun meets water
In the city
If you’re stuck in the city, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can go without the right gear.
Sunlight can also reflect off of buildings, cars, and concrete streets. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a bright sunny day or a hazy one. UV rays can affect your eyes and skin through cloud cover.
On the mountain
Sunlight can also reflect off of ice and snow. If you participate in sports such as mountain climbing, snowboarding, or skiing, you’re at risk for photokeratitis if you don’t protect your eyes. This type of photokeratitis is known as snow blindness.
In some instances, snow blindness can cause the corneal surface to freeze or become very dry. This condition is common in the North and South Poles, but can also happen at higher altitudes where the air is thin. Thinner air provides less protection from UV rays, making you more vulnerable than you may realize.
Artificial UV light
Other artificial sources of UV light include: arc welding machines and reptile basking bulbs — a type of UVB bulb used in pet stores and reptile enclosures.
You might think that tanning beds are safe for your eyes, since they emit UVA instead of UVB rays, but this is not accurate. Tanning beds produce up to 100 times the amount of UV rays that the sun does, and can be very dangerous for eyes. If you use tanning beds, it is imperative that you protect your eyes during use.
Not all sunglasses are created equal. To ensure that your eyes get the protection they need, make sure your eyeglasses block or absorb 99 to 100 percent of UV rays. Wearing a brimmed hat can also help shield your eyes from sun exposure. When you’re skiing or enjoying other snow sports, wear sunglasses or goggles that provide this same level of protection. Wearing a helmet can also help.
Never use a tanning bed without wearing protective eye gear. Also try to keep your eyes closed as much as possible.
If you use welding equipment or similar types of machinery, wear a welding helmet designed to protect your eyes and face.
If the symptoms of sunburned eyes continue to plague you for more than a day or two, see your doctor. If you don’t already have a primary care provider, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool. A specialist, such as an ophthalmologist or optometrist, can prescribe medication, if needed.
Remember, the longer your exposure to UV rays, the more likely you are to experience serious eye conditions over time, such as cataracts, or macular degeneration. If you have problems with your vision, see your doctor.
You should also see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- seeing halos
- blurred, fuzzy, dim, or distorted vision
- shadowy areas in the middle field of vision
- sensitivity to glare or light
- problems with night vision
Eyelids are a particularly vulnerable area of the body. They can get skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or malignant melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma in this area can also spread to the eye itself.
See a dermatologist if you notice any of these symptoms on your eyelid:
- a discolored eyelid growth that appears red, black, or brown
- breaks in the skin that do not go away, or changes in skin texture
- swelling or thickening of skin
- eyelash loss
Just like skin, your eyes are vulnerable to getting sunburned from too much exposure to UV rays. This condition, called photokeratitis, usually goes away on its own within a few days. In the short term, UV ray exposure and eye sunburn can cause uncomfortable symptoms.
In the long term, serious conditions, such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and eyelid cancer may result. It’s important to protect your eyes from the sun, and to take special care when you’re in high altitudes where air is thin, and UV rays are strong.