Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Summer is here, and with it, even more sun and its ultraviolet radiation. We’ve gotten pretty good at using sunscreen to protect our bare skin from UV rays, right? What about our naked eyes? Here is what we all need to know about sunglasses.
In a recent survey, less than half of 10,000 Americans recognized the health benefits of sunglasses, and 27% reported never wearing them. Does it make sense to leave our eyes unprotected, when a host of conditions are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation? Some of the eye problems that the sun can cause include:
Cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens which makes what we see appear darker and blurry. Some 20% of cataracts are triggered by excessive exposure to UV rays, and the World Health Organization reports that approximately 900,000 people worldwide are blind due to cataracts.
Macular degeneration, a result of damage to the retina that destroys central vision. It is the leading cause of blindness in the United States.
Pterygium, also called surfer’s eye, is a growth of tissue over the white part of the eye’s surface. This can alter the curve of the eyeball, leading to astigmatism.
Skin cancers, which can be found on the eyelid. In fact, they are surprisingly common there, representing about 10% of all skin cancers.
Photokeratitis, essentially a sunburn of the eye. Fortunately it is temporary, and typically heals within 48 hours. It can be painful, and cause blurred vision, sensitivity to light, and the sensation of having sand in the eye.
So, this is why it is so important to protect our eyes from the harmful affects of UV rays! Now let’s discuss sunglasses. They are not all the same. They can cost very little, or quite a bit. How do we choose the right pair?
The most important thing to consider is that brand and price matter far less than does selecting a pair that blocks out both UVA and UVB radiation (UVB is actually more harmful than UVA). A pair is acceptable if it offers UV protection of at least 95%. Avoid sunglasses that are not labeled at all. Recently I visited a sunglass kiosk where there were no such labels, and was told that they had been removed to make the sunglasses look more attractive. Perhaps that was the truth, but nevertheless, I took my business elsewhere!
Consider that the ideal sunglasses are wraparounds, which protect us from UV rays coming in from the sides. And, note that even if your contact lenses have UV protection, wearing sunglasses is still important. Pay special attention to wearing them at higher altitudes where the UV rays are even more intense, and when you are near water or snow. Some medications can cause even greater sensitivity to light, including certain antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and diuretics.
Please get into the habit of wearing your sunglasses year-round. Cloudy days do not stop UV rays! Please remember that children’s eyes are even more susceptible to UV rays. While you’re at it, throw in a wide brimmed hat for extra protection. It can’t hurt!