As we slip into the winter season, and the days start to grow shorter and the weather grows colder, many people naturally spend less time outside. Without the summer sun blazing overhead, it is often easy to forget that environmental factors like wind and sun can pose serious dangers to the health of your eyes. However, common vision problems like snow blindness or chronic dry eye can serve as painful but helpful reminders that the eyes are very sensitive organs, requiring care and protection all year long.
Many of those who take part in winter sports are familiar with the dangers of snow blindness. Excessive exposure to ultraviolent light from the sun, particularly the more harmful short-wave ultraviolet, or UVB, light can cause photokeratitis, a condition not unlike a sun burn on the surface of the eye. High frequency ultraviolet light affects the thin surface layer of the cornea — the clear front window of the eye — and the conjunctiva, which is the cell layer covering the inside of the eyelids and the whites of the eye, causing damage to the delicate, light-sensitive cells. Damage from photokeratitis, like that from sunburn, often goes unnoticed until well after it has occurred. Symptoms, which may persist up to twelve hours after exposure, generally include pain and a “gritty” feeling, redness and swelling, excessive tearing, blurry vision, headache, and in some cease even temporary vision loss. Fortunately photokeratitis can be easily prevented by wearing eye protection that blocks most of the ultraviolet radiation, such as sunglasses rated for sufficient UV protection or appropriate snow goggles. Treatment involves keeping the eyes closed while treating them with ophthalmic antibiotic solution. The surface of the cornea usually regenerates naturally within 24 to 48 hours.
While it seems obvious that damage like this could occur while sunning by the pool in July, the condition can actually be even more likely during the winter months. The natural anatomy of the face helps shield the eyes from light coming from above, but provides less effective protection against light that is reflected upwards from water, ice, or snow on the ground. Further, since the earth’s atmosphere naturally shields us from a portion of the ultraviolent light coming from the sun, at higher altitudes (like in the mountains) the thinner atmosphere provides less natural protection. Additionally, other environmental factors during the cold winter months can exacerbate the condition. Extremely cold and dry air, such as that commonly experienced when skiing, snowboarding, or mountain climbing, can cause severe drying of the corneal surface. Persistent dry eye, if left untreated, can lead to an increased risk of developing serious eye infections and even long-term damage to the surface of the eyes themselves in the form of corneal ulcers.
Keeping yourself informed about the potential dangers your eyes can face, and taking some relatively simple steps to avoid them, can go a long way towards preserving healthy vision for years to come. If you have any questions or concerns about your vision, or if you would like to schedule an eye exam with Dr. William Segal or Dr. Marc Lay, please contact Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons today to make an appointment. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for more information on how to keep your vision healthy.