Oh No, Your Eyes Can Get Sunburned

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The sun can wreak havoc on a lot of things, from your car to your skin. Did you know that even your eyes are susceptible to damage from UV rays? They are. We don’t usually call that “an eye sunburn,” though; we call it photokeratitis. But it’s effectively the same thing, and it’s bad news. Here’s what it is and how to prevent it.

What is photokeratitis?

Photokeratitis—also known as ultraviolet keratitis—is an inflammation of the cornea that happens after eyes are overexposed to UV rays. Over time, too much exposure to the sun can lead to the development of certain eye conditions, including cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and eyelid cancer.

Even without those serious threats, the symptoms of photokeratitis aren’t fun while they’re happening, either. You can expect everything from a “gritty feeling,” like there’s sand in your eyes, pain in your eyes, headache, a twitching feeling in your eyelid, tearing, swelling, redness, blurry vision, and/or light sensitivity. You could see “halos” around lights, have constricted pupils even in dim light, or even—in rare cases—experience temporary vision loss or color changes in your vision.

How photokeratitis is treated

Luckily, as Healthline notes, acute symptoms usually resolve in a day or two, so treatment is usually focused on making you more comfortable for the duration. You could be recommended pain relievers or given antibiotic eye drops. Take out your contacts right away so your eyes can relax and heal, don’t rub your eyes, and use a cool compress to relieve pain. Also, be careful not to get anything in your eyes, whether that’s salt water or makeup.

How to prevent photokeratitis

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, your risk of developing photokeratitis can be increased by the sun reflecting on sand, water, ice, and snow, so keep in mind this isn’t a summertime-only issue. It can also happen if you stare at the sun directly without any kind of special protection. Consider, too, man-made sources of UV light like tanning beds and arc welding devices.

You need to wear proper eye protection to avoid photokeratitis. That’s why tanning salons give you those funny little goggles when you lay in a tanning bed (which we advise against, by the way) and why welders wear those helmets while they work.

If you plan to be outside a lot this summer—especially by sand or water—you need good sunglasses. Check the tag to make sure they block 99 to 100% of UVA and UVB rays. Look for bigger lenses, too, for maximum protection, even at the expense of trendiness—those tiny, 2000s-era sunnies have made a big comeback in recent years, but they don’t provide nearly as much coverage. And if fashion is really important to you—hell, even if it’s not—pick up a cute (or not cute, whatever) sun hat while you’re at it.

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