By Dr Nicholas Altuneg
With the warmer weather fast approaching, now is the time to find the right eye protection for summer. When most people think about protecting their eyes from the sun, they grab their sunglasses.
But how do your eyes interact with UV radiation and what can you do to better protect yourself from these harsh rays during summer? Are sunglasses enough? Or are they just a great start? Let’s explore.
Light is necessary for both your vision and health. Your eyes are designed to receive radiation from the visible spectrum, this is what helps you to see. The sun also sets your circadian rhythm, this helps your body to produce the appropriate hormones to keep you awake during the day and sleepy as the sun begins to set.
Ultraviolet light from the sun is invisible to the human eye, but it can potentially cause harm in high doses. For optimal eye protection in summer, it comes down to striking the right balance between getting enough sunlight for your health without causing damage to your eyes.
UV solar radiation is the single most significant source of UV radiation – it can reach you directly from the sun, scattered from the open sky or reflected from the environment. Typical eye protection in summer consists of seeking shade, sunglasses and wearing a hat.
Most people overlook the fact that light can also be reflected from surfaces such as water, sand, snow, white paint, light coloured concrete, and metallic surfaces. Reflected UV radiation has the potential to cause more damage than direct UV radiation because it bypasses the natural protection from our eyebrows and eyelids. Reflected UV rays have a more direct angle of incidence to the eye, meaning the UV light that strikes the eye is therefore a lot more intense.
Acute exposure to excess UV radiation can cause temporary effects on the eyes that usually subside within a 48–hour period. These effects include:
- Mild irritation
- Photoconjunctivitis – inflammation of the conjunctiva
- Photokeratitis – inflammation of the cornea, like ‘sunburn’ on the eye.
Symptoms of the above can include swelling and redness of the eyes. In some cases, you may develop blurry vision, light sensitivity, or watery eyes. While these symptoms can be quite painful, the duration is usually short–term.
Prolonged exposure to UV radiation can cause long term effects to the eyes such as pinguecula or pterygium which is a white or creamy fleshy growth on the surface of the eyes. These conditions are easily managed with regular review and treatment, as well as the upkeep of proper eye protection.
While unlikely, excessive exposure to UV can also cause potentially life threatening or blinding conditions, such as cancers, cataracts, or macular degeneration. With an eye condition or disease, prevention is always the best treatment, and now that you can see the extent of damage that UV radiation can have on eyes, we hope you understand the importance of proper eye protection in summer.
The best form of eye protection is avoiding sun exposure during high UV times, which typically occurs between 11am and 3pm. As mentioned, seeking shade, and wearing sunglasses and a hat are the most typical form of eye protection in summer. However, there are also protective measures you can do throughout your day to day life.
Eyes are the most metabolically active part of the human body (they receive the most amount of blood flow for their size). What this means is that they are subject to high amounts of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body.
Because of this, what you nourish your body with can counter this oxidative stress. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables, and therefore in antioxidants and phytochemicals is a great form of eye protection. On the other hand, a diet consisting of processed foods not only increases the risk of oxidative damage but also prematurely ages the eyes.
Sunglasses should be your first point of contact when it comes to eye protection. Choose sunglasses that meet the Australia/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS 1067:2016).
You should ensure your sunglasses are close–fitting to your face. It is important to note that the colour of the lens does not relate to the amount of protection against UV radiation the sunglasses give, so check the label for the protection levels.
If you want to opt for prescription glasses, there are several options to protect your eyes. These include:
- having a UV protective treatment when your glasses are made
- having photochromic (transitions) lenses which are clear indoors but darken in response to sunlight
- having prescription sunglasses made wearing protective sunglasses over your prescription glasses.
If you wear contact lenses, then you can opt for a good quality pair of sunglasses without prescription.
Children, like adults, are also prone to the negative effects of excess sun exposure. Avoiding and minimising sun exposure during higher UV times is even more crucial for children, as they have less natural UV protection. The tissues around their eyes are still developing and therefore are more transparent and hence more prone to UV damage. The same eye protection measures apply to children as they do to adults.
Like anything related to your eyesight, the more you can do to protect them, the better off they’ll be in the long run. UV radiation from the sun is one of those things that most people overlook when it comes to eye protection in summer.
With a few simple steps, you can significantly reduce your risk of getting serious or life threatening eye conditions.
If you think you may be experiencing any adverse effects from prolonged UV exposure, the best thing you can do is get an eye examination as soon as possible. The earlier your eye health concerns can be addressed by an Optometrist, the earlier you’ll be able to receive treatment to prevent further deterioration.
This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general eye health topics. It should not be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your health care professional prior to incorporating this as part of your health regimen.
Dr Nicholas Altuneg is an Optometrist who has been working on the Central Coast for almost 30 years. He is the co–founder at Eyes by Design, which is in the Kincumber Centre. Appointments can be made by phone 4369 8169 or online at www.eyesbydesign.com.au