May is Healthy Vision Month, a perfect time to ask: Are we taking the proper precautions to protect our eyes? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Eyes may be windows to the soul, but they are also windows for harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can cause silent, long-term damage on our vision that may occur decades later.
This issue is particularly timely with summer around the corner—a season in which it’s almost intuitive to lather on the sunscreen before we head to the beach. While most Americans understand the link between UV radiation and skin cancer, many are less aware of the connection between UV radiation and eye damage. Yet the truth is that harmful UV rays are not just bad for skin; they also can inflict significant eye damage over time. Worldwide some 12 to 15 million people become blind from cataracts annually, of which up to 20% may be caused or enhanced by sun exposure according to estimates from The World Health Organization1. UV rays also have been linked to other ocular conditions.
What’s more, UV rays can cause short-term conditions such as photokeratitis (a corneal inflammation) and photoconjunctivitis (an inflammation of the conjunctiva under the eyelid). If you’ve ever had sore, tired eyes after a day at the beach or on the water, you may have experienced UV radiation overexposure.
The simple fact is that we need to take better precautions to protect our eyes. With skin, when you are out in the sun too long, you see an instantaneous change in the form of sunburn. But unlike skin, short-term damage to the eyes is sometimes hard to notice. For some people, over the long-term, though, the sun can cause irreversible harm to parts of the eye and surrounding tissue that are left unprotected or under-protected. So, what happens to our kids today may not be evident until decades later. That’s why it is important to get maximum protection beginning in childhood.
The good news is that there are easy steps, which, when taken together, can help minimize UV exposure to our eyes. Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Wear wrap-around sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of both UV-A and UV-B rays, with lenses large enough to completely cover the eyes. And wear them all day; UV radiation for the eyes is actually worse when the sun is lower in the sky. While it has long been thought that the risk of UV exposure to the eyes is greatest during the mid-day hours, from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM, research suggests that from Spring through Fall, when the days get longer, the incidence of exposure is actually greatest earlier and later in the day.
UV-blocking contact lenses, when worn in combination with UV-absorbing wrap-around sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat can offer an added measure of protection for those who need vision correction. However, not all contact lenses offer UV protection, and of those that do, not all provide similar absorption levels. An eye care professional can prescribe Class 1 or Class 2 UV-blocking contact lenses, which provide high levels of UV blocking. Although UV-blocking contact lenses are beneficial in helping to protect against harmful UV rays, clinical studies have not been done to show they reduce the risk of any specific eye disease or condition.
By becoming better educated about the dangers of UV rays on the eyes and the importance of choosing proper eyewear that provides the best UV protection, we can lessen the risk for ocular UV exposure and help protect the long-term eye health of ourselves and our children.
1Health effects of UV radiation, World Health Organization, www.who.int/uv/health/en/
Millicent Knight, OD, is Head of Professional Affairs, Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, North America. In this role, Dr. Knight leads the development and deployment of the company’s professional strategy across the United States and Canada. She also directs the company’s professional and education platform through THE VISION CARE INSTITUTE®, LLC and other educational outreach programs. Dr. Knight brings 25 years of comprehensive experience in multiple areas of optometry, including contact lenses, contact lens research, ocular disease management, and integrative eye and systemic care to the position. .content