5 Things You Can Do to Protect Your Eyes from the Sun

Eye Health, VSP
on June 30, 2015

In late 2012, television journalist Anderson Cooper shocked CNN viewers when he told them he had recently gone blind.

He hadn’t contracted some devastating disease that unexpectedly claimed his eyesight. Instead, after spending two hours on a boat in Portugal without wearing sunglasses, Cooper said he was blinded for 36 hours. “I wake up in the middle of the night, and it feels like my eyes are on fire—my eyeballs—and I think, ‘Oh maybe I have sand in my eyes or something,’” Cooper explained on-air. “I douse my eyes with water. Anyway, it turns out I have sunburned my eyeballs. I had no idea you could do this.”

As it turns out, Cooper didn’t actually lose his sight. Instead, the burn on his eyes, called photokeratitis, likely caused so much pain that he couldn’t open his eyes and felt like he was going blind.

While Cooper has since fully recovered, his experience was certainly a wake-up call for millions of Americans who had been paying less-than-careful attention to their eye health. And now, with summer upon us, protecting the eyes with UV protection is more important than ever.

As a sunshine state native and VSP Vision Care doctor, Dr. Thuy-Lan Nguyen knows first-hand the significance of proper eye care. Here, she shares her tips for the summer months and beyond.

Why is it more important for people to protect their eyes during summer than at other times of the year?

Protecting your eyes from the sun’s harmful UV and High Energy Visible (HEV) or “blue light” radiation is important all year long, but it is especially important in the summer months because we tend to be more active outdoors when it is warmer. The longer you are in the sun, the more you are at risk to UV exposure.

What are some potential consequences of failure to adequately protect the eyes from the sun?

Short-term sun exposure to the eyes can cause photokeratitis, a temporary sunburn to the cornea, which is the clear covering on the front part of your eyes. In addition to making your vision blurry, this exposure can also make your eyes red, swollen, watery or gritty, or cause them to sting. Long-term UV exposure can have more serious consequences to vision and eye health. The UV and HEV radiation of the sun has been linked to cataracts, macular degeneration, overgrowths of tissue on the eyes and even eyelid cancers.

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What are the statistics regarding people who have had their vision impaired by the sun? Is this something that happens more frequently than most people realize? How much do people really need to be worried about this?  

Cataracts associated with UV exposure affects nearly 22 million Americans age 40 and older. According to The World Health Organization, up to 20% of cataracts worldwide are related to the sun and could have been avoided with UV protection. Also, the skin around your eyelids is more delicate and can be at risk for eyelid melanomas and basal cell carcinomas, the most common type of skin cancer. Up to 90% of skin cancers that occur on the head and neck region are on the eyelids. This happens more often than we realize. According to The Vision Council, the number of women under the age of 40 with basal cell carcinoma more than doubled from 1975 to 2005.

We are told to wear sunscreen even if it’s cloudy, since the sun’s rays can still damage skin. Is this true for eyes, as well? As in, when—or under what circumstances—do people need to be vigilant about eye protection?

Yes, just as we are told to wear sunscreen with SPF for our skin all year long, glasses with UV protection should be worn all year long, too, even when it’s cloudy or overcast. Even in the winter months, snow can reflect the sun’s UV rays. UV eye protection is also critical for active people and athletes who spend extended periods of times outdoors. Parents should also be vigilant about eye protection for their children. Young children are at an even higher risk for UV exposure because they have larger pupils, and their eyes have not built their natural defenses yet.

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When it comes to eyewear, we assume that not all are created equal, so what should readers look for when choosing a pair of sunglasses?

Darker does not always mean better if they don’t have UVA and UVB protection. And we are all less likely to wear sunglasses if they are uncomfortable or don’t fit properly. Very young children may need sunglasses with wrap-around lenses to protect the side of their eyelids and elastic bands to help keep them in place. Active people should choose frames that are lightweight and sweat resistant to prevent slipping when worn. Polarized lenses offer UV protection but also reduce glare, making them ideal for daytime driving, biking or activities on the water.

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Aside from wearing the proper sunglasses, what are some other tips to help readers ensure they are protecting their eyes?

Aside from sunglasses to protect the eyes from the UV and HEV radiation of the sun, also remember to wear hats with rims when doing outdoor activities. And new studies are showing the our digital devices such as smart phones and tablets also emit harmful HEV or blue light which can lead to macular degeneration. Your optometrist can prescribe prescription sunglasses, as well as glasses with Blu Tech lenses to protect your eyes from macular degeneration if you do any computer work.

VSP Direct™ is an individual vision insurance product provided through VSP® Vision Care, offering affordable and high-quality individual vision benefits directly to consumers. Individual vision coverage includes an annual eye exam with a copayment, allowance for glasses or contacts, and access to the largest independent doctor network in the industry with 32,000 doctors—all backed by a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. VSP Direct offers the lowest out-of-pocket costs in vision care and a typical annual savings over $200 a year.

Insurance policies have exclusions and limitations. For costs and complete details of the coverage contact VSP at 800.785.0699.

Found in: Eye Health, VSP