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What is UV Damage and how does it affect your eyes?

It's not just ongoing UV exposure that can damage your eyes

A couple wearing sunglasses smile as they enjoy the sunshine
A couple wearing sunglasses smile as they enjoy the sunshine

Thanks to years of ‘slip, slop and slap’, we all know about the link between UV (ultraviolet) damage and skin cancer, but it doesn’t stop there. 

 In 2007 the message was updated to Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide reflect the importance of seeking shade and sliding on sunglasses to prevent sun damage. 

 It’s not just long-term exposure to UV that can be damaging. In the short-term, your eyes can get sunburnt from spending time in the sun, just like your skin. We spoke with OPSM Optometrist, Kirby Phillips, to learn more. 

Credit: nib health insurance

What are UV rays? 

UV rays are high-energy, invisible light rays. Sunlight is the main source of  UV which can have a serious impact on your eyes and with Australia experiencing some of the highest levels of UV radiation in the world, it’s important to protect your peepers. 

“The sun's rays are strongest between 10am and 2pm, but that's not the only time UV rays can harm your eyes,” Kirby explains. “Glare and reflections can give you trouble too, so have your sunglasses ready if you'll be around water, sand or snow, or when you are driving (windscreens are a big glare source!) UV rays also penetrate through clouds, so you can get sun damage to your eyes even on overcast days.” 

Who’s at Risk of UV damage?

Everyone, especially children, can be affected by UV damage and if you’re spending a lot of time in the sun, you’re automatically at risk. 

”UV damage is cumulative over a person's lifetime, which means you should begin protecting your child's eyes as soon as possible,” explains Kirby.  
If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions, you may be at higher risk of UV damage to your eyes, and should consult your local optometrist about limiting its effects as soon as possible: 

  • Do you spend long hours in the sun? (surfing, swimming, skiing, hiking etc.) 

  • Do you tan in the sun? 

  • Have you had cataract surgery in one or both eyes? 

  • Do you have a retinal disorder or a family history of one? 

  • Are you on certain medications that increase the eye’s sensitivity to light, such as tetracycline, sulphur drugs, birth control pills, diuretics, and tranquillisers? 

  • Are you a welder, medical technician or do you work in the graphic arts or in manufacturing of electronic circuit boards? 

Everyone can be affected by UV damage & if you’re spending time in the sun, you’re at risk

What can UV damage do to your eyes?

Some of the more serious eye conditions that are caused by UV rays include:

Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of age-related blindness in Australia with approximately 1 in 7 Australians over 50 showing early signs of this disease. Caused by the deterioration of the retina, UV radiation significantly increases the risk of developing this eye disease. 

Cataracts describe the clouding of the crystalline lens behind the pupil, leading to blurry vision. This condition is one of the leading causes of blindness at a global level and can be treated surgically with the removal of the cloudy lens and replacing it with a clear plastic replacement lens. Research has found that UV rays can induce the formation of cataracts, making it so important to book an eye test with your optometrist at least every two years – and more regularly if you notice any eye problems.

Pterygium is when the white skin of the eye starts encroaching onto the coloured part of the eye and it can become inflamed, red and irritated. A non-cancerous growth that’s quite common in surfers or those who spend a lot of time around water or outdoors, Pterygium is caused by too much exposure to the UV light, pollen, sand and wind.

Skin cancers are usually found around the eyelids and toward the nose, but these melanomas can occur anywhere in the eye - the retina included.

Photokeratitis, also known as snow blindness, occurs when the delicate skin of the cornea gets sunburnt. Photokeratitis can be extremely painful and even cause temporary vision loss.

Choose sunglasses that're labelled Category 2, 3 or 4 or marked as EPF (Eye Protection Factor) 9 or 10

How can I protect my eyes from UV rays?

Wearing sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays is the best way to protect your eyes from the sun. It is worth considering wrap-around sunglasses to prevent harmful UV rays from entering around the frame.

”There are so many lenses available, it's a good idea to ask your optometrist for advice when choosing sunglasses. Different tints can help you see better in certain conditions, and your optometrist can help you choose sunglass tints that are best suited for your needs,” Kirby explains. 

“Make sure you choose sunglasses that meet Australian Standards for UV protection by checking that they’re labelled as category 2, 3 or 4 and or are marked as EPF (Eye Protection Factor) 9 or 10.”

Having regular eye tests is essential to identifying and preventing many of the problems caused by UV rays, so it is vital you schedule a check-up with your local optometrist.

OPSM are part of the nib First Choice Optical network and provide Bulk Billed eye tests and offer exclusive offers for nib members including No Gap single vision range1. 15% off selected non-prescription sunglasses and 20% off lenses and lens extras2. They also provide Bulk Billed eye tests for Medicare card holders. Learn more about OPSM member benefits.

1No Gap offer from the $149 range and below. nib does not pay benefits towards lens extras. Lens extras may be charged by the optometrist. Cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer. Brand exclusions and further T&Cs apply, please see OPSM and Laubman & Pank website or in store for further details.

2Lens extras may be charged by the optometrist. Discounts apply to full priced items only. Discount available to all nib private health insurance members, including those who do not hold Extras cover. Offer not available for items already on sale. Other conditions may apply. Please see in store for details.

Claiming optical benefits from nib is subject to your chosen level of Extras cover, relevant waiting periods being served, and sufficient annual limits remaining. Benefits only payable on prescription Optical Appliances. nib Fund Rules and Policy booklet terms apply. Check your cover in your Member Account, by calling 13 16 42 or +61 2 9692 4300 (outside Australia), or in store with your nib membership card.