During the long Minnesota winters, it can be a great blessing to be able to spend time outside on a sunny day. After months of feeling cooped up indoors due to cold weather, venturing outside to go sledding, ice fishing, skating, or just taking a walk in the fresh air can feel terrific. And though we certainly don’t need to worry about applying sunscreen in the same way as we would in the summer, the sun’s rays can still affect exposed skin in the winter – as well as our eyes.
Just as our skin can be harmed by high levels of UV rays, our eyes can be damaged, as well. Photokeratitis, often known as snow blindness, is a condition that often strikes in the winter – essentially, it’s a sunburn on the cornea, or surface, of the eyes. Snow blindness can strike at any time of year, but it’s particularly common in the winter since snow can reflect up to 80 percent of the ultraviolet rays after they hit the ground. This reflection means that the eyes are actually receiving almost double the amount of sunlight they’re exposed to normally. High altitude can be a factor as well, since UV rays are stronger in higher elevations, causing a greater threat of photokeratitis for skiers and snowboarders.
Symptoms and Damage
Symptoms of snow blindness can include red eyes, pain, burning, blurred vision, swelling, watering, headaches, sensitivity to light, watery eyes, halos around lights, and/or a feeling of grit or something in the affected eye(s). Snow blindness can also cause vision loss for a day or two, though it doesn’t cause actual blindness. Still, vision can be compromised enough to affect daily activity and even color vision.
Like a regular sunburn, photokeratitis is dangerous because it can take several hours before you realize the harm that’s been done, which might lead to more UV exposure. This prolonged exposure, of course, can make the damage even more severe.
Time as Treatment
Generally, snow blindness symptoms resolve after a day or two on their own without treatment. To lessen discomfort, someone afflicted with snow blindness should avoid wearing contact lenses until the eyes are healed. In addition, an affected person could relieve pain by staying indoors, wearing sunglasses, and using artificial tears to keep eyes moistened. A damp, cool washcloth placed over the eyelids might also help soothe discomfort.
Awareness and Avoidance
Though it’s a common enough condition, being aware of the danger of photokeratitis can lead to easily avoiding it. To prevent snow blindness, just wear sunglasses that block the sun’s ultraviolet rays while outside during daylight hours. UV rays can penetrate clouds, so there’s a risk of burned eyes (and skin) even on overcast or cloudy days, so it’s a good idea to keep those sunglasses handy.
For those who are active in winter or summer sports or spend extended periods of time outdoors, it can help to look for sunglasses that wrap around the head or sports goggles that block sunlight from both direct and indirect sunlight.
While this time of year may produce more intense ultraviolet rays, “snow” blindness can also happen at any time of year – and even from things other than the sun. Tanning booths and sun lamps can also cause photokeratitis, as can other man-made light sources like welding torches. Because of this, it’s always important to adequately protect the eyes.
If you have questions about your eye health or how to protect your vision, contact us for more information.