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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.

UV rays can also 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.

And, it’s not just the midday sun that can be harmful. Optometrist Georgina Preece explains,

“UV exposure to the eye before 10am and after 2pm may be higher than during the middle of the day because of the angle of the sun and how it hits your eye, meaning it’s imperative to protect your eyes all day and all year round by wearing UV protective lenses.”

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.

Credit: nib health insurance

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. The effect increases the more exposure you get, so the earlier we start protecting our children and ourselves, the better.

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 accounts for 51% of global blindness 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?

The first step in protecting your eyes from UV rays is to understand the risks and know that UV radiation can come from all directions. While most radiation comes directly from the sun, it can also reflect from the ground, water, snow, sand and other bright surfaces. This is where polarised protective eyewear is really helpful, as it helps block out the reflected UV radiation, as well as direct.

Georgina explains that when it comes to choosing sunglasses, the quality of protection isn’t necessarily related to the cost, or the darkness of the lens.

“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.”

Another important factor in protecting your eyes is to ensure your glasses fit you correctly.

“Your glasses should be sitting close to the bridge of your nose without touching the eyelashes and have side protection or wrap-around to block out side glare.”

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. You can visit nib First Choice Opticalnetwork to help you to search for local optometrists; it's our community of specially selected health providers, who have promised they will deliver quality care and value for money.

*Source: 'Eyes on the future – A clear outlook on age-related macular degeneration.’ Report by Deloitte Access Economics & Macular Degeneration Foundation, 2011

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