Can Your Eyes Get Sunburned?

Why do contacts get blurry and how to fix them

You know to wear sunscreen to protect your skin when you’re out in the sun, but what about sun protection for your eyes? Your eyes can get sunburned from too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This condition is called photokeratitis.

What is Photokeratitis?

Photokeratitis is when your corneas (the clear front surface of your eyes) become inflamed. In other words, photokeratitis is an eye sunburn. It’s a painful condition that can last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days.

What Causes Photokeratitis?

Ultraviolet rays that could cause an eye sunburn are emitted by many sources:

  • Direct sun. The sun is the main source of UV rays. Staring directly at the sun without any eye protection can cause an eye sunburn – or worse. You can also burn your retina (the light-sensitive inner lining of the back of the eye), which is more serious, long-lasting damage. That’s why you’ve always been told not to look directly at the sun, especially during a solar eclipse.
  • Reflected sunlight. Sunlight that’s reflected onto your eyes from snow, ice, water, sand, glass or cement can also cause sunburned eyes. Even though the light isn’t as strong as looking directly at the sun, the UV rays can still cause damage.
  • Artificial sources of UV light. Man-made UV sources that can harm your eyes include lamps used in tanning beds or booths, lasers, mercury vapor lamps, halogen desk lamps, electric sparks, arc welding equipment and flood lamps used in photography.

Too much exposure to UV radiation can also increase your risk of serious vision problems and eye diseases, such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and eyelid cancer.

What Are the Symptoms of an Eye Sunburn?

Photokeratitis can happen quickly and is not something you should ignore. Similar to getting a sunburn on your skin, the longer your unprotected eyes are exposed to UV rays, the worse your sunburned eye symptoms can be.

These symptoms include:

  • Eye pain
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • A gritty feeling (as if you have sand in your eyes)
  • Headache
  • Tearing
  • Blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Seeing halos
  • Constricted, pinpoint pupils
  • Vision distortions
  • Temporary vision loss (rarely)

Who Is at Risk of Getting Their Eyeballs Sunburned?

Anyone who is out in the sun without eye protection can wind up with sunburnt eyes.

You’re at greater risk if you:

  • Spend a lot of time outdoors on sunny days engaged in activities such as hiking, mountain climbing and swimming. You may be surprised to learn that exposure to UV rays is doubled in the winter, especially when you’re out in the snow skiing, shoveling snow or snowboarding.
  • Live in higher altitudes, such as Colorado or Utah, where there is greater exposure to UV radiation.
  • Live in the sunbelt states – Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, Texas, California (up to Sacramento) and the southern parts of North Carolina, Nevada and Utah.
  • Use a sunlamp or tanning bed.

How Do You Protect Your Eyes?

Protecting your eyes from damaging UV rays can help you avoid getting an eye sunburn.

Some options to keep your eyes safe include:

  • Sunglasses. When choosing sunglasses, look for a pair that blocks 100% of UV rays.
  • Contact lenses. You can get daily, weekly and monthly contact lenses that block UV rays.
  • Goggles. There is a wide variety of goggles for winter sports, such as skiing or snowboarding, that protect your eyes from UV rays.
  • Brimmed hat. Heading to the beach? A hat with a wide brim is an effective way to shield your eyes from the sun.

How Do You Heal Sunburned Eyes?

Most of the time, photokeratitis will clear up on its own in a few days if you stay out of the sun. If you do get sunburned eyes, there are some things you can do to relieve your symptoms:

  • Go inside immediately. If you have any sunburned eyes symptoms, get out of the sun right away.
  • Remove your contact lense. You can take out your contacts to help lessen irritation caused by photokeratitis.
  • Don’t rub your eyes. Although it’s tempting, rubbing your eyes can make your symptoms worse.
  • Use a cold compress. Run a washcloth under cool water. Close your eyes and hold the washcloth over them with gentle pressure. This should help reduce swelling and discomfort. You can use a cold compress as much as you need to to ease pain.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication. Ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®) can also relieve some pain from an eye sunburn.
  • Try artificial tears. You can try preservative-free artificial tears if your eyes feel dry or gritty. They will soothe your eyes by moistening your corneas. You’ll want to use preservative-free artificial tears because they are gentle on sensitive eyes. They can also be used more often than artificial tears that are not preservative free.

How Do Sunburned Eyes Affect Your Eyelids?

Sun exposure can also be harmful for your eyelids. Eyelids are the thinnest skin on your body and are extra sensitive to damage. Exposure to UV rays can lead to skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma or malignant melanoma.

See a dermatologist if you notice any of these on your eyelid:

  • A discolored growth that looks red, black or brown
  • Swelling or thickening of skin
  • Changes in skin texture
  • Eyelash loss

Sunburned eyes and eyelids can be painful and uncomfortable. If your eyelids do get sunburned, you can treat the symptoms at home and your eyes should heal in one to two days. If your sunburned eyelids aren’t healing, make an appointment with your eye doctor.

When Should You See Your Eye Doctor for Sunburned Eyeballs?

If you’re not feeling better after one or two days, make an appointment to see your eye doctor. Your sunburned eyes could be serious, or you may have another eye problem.

You should also have an eye exam if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Blurred, fuzzy, dim or distorted vision
  • Sensitivity to glare or light
  • Problems with night vision
  • Seeing halos around lights
  • Shadowy areas in the middle field of your vision
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