The Environmental Protection Agency has deemed Maryland’s mean UV index as “high” for the month of July, meaning that we should take extra precaution to protect ourselves from sun damage (EPA, 2012). This is especially important in Central Maryland, where we spend much of our summer enjoying the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay; reflections off sand and water surfaces can even double our UV exposure!
We all know to protect our skin from UV exposure by using sunscreen, but many of us do not take the time to protect our eyes. The eye, being a delicate organ that is not protected by skin, is uniquely vulnerable to the damaging effects of UV rays. Various eye diseases are linked to lifelong sun exposure.
A pterygium is an abnormal growth that forms on the surface of the eye. It is known to be caused by long-term sun exposure and therefore is most common in people who live near the equator, those who work outside or those who spend much of their time on the water. In severe cases, this growth can cause significant irritation and even visual loss.
A cataract occurs when the clear lens in the eye gradually becomes cloudy, causing blurred vision and glare. Though most people will develop at least some cataract with age, cataracts can become more severe in people who have been exposed to significant amounts of UV rays. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 20% of cataracts are linked to UV exposure, therefore making them avoidable with proper sun protection habits (WHO, 2012).
Age-related Macular Degeneration
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of visual loss in people over 65. It is a disease of the retina whose symptoms include blurred vision; distortion of objects, faces, and words; and even dark, “missing” areas of central vision. Its exact cause is unknown, but scientists and doctors do believe that heredity and UV exposure play a role in the development of macular degeneration.
Cancers of the eye are possible and they may be associated with long-term sun exposure. Though extremely rare, melanoma can develop inside the eye and may result in visual loss. The eyelids are a common place for less worrisome cancers, like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.
But a high UV index does not mean that you have to sit inside all summer! Doctors Tarantino and Cho have a few tips to help you limit your risk this summer (and all year round!).
- Pick the right sunglasses! Don’t focus on the darkness of the sunglasses, but look for sunglasses that offer “UV 400” protection. Larger lenses and wrap-around styles can further protect the eyes and eyelids from the sun.
- Bring a hat! A large, wide-brimmed hat will not only protect your eyes, but it will also help to shield your facial skin from sun damage.
- Take care even on cloudy days! Although the sun’s light may not seem bright on cloudy days, UV rays can still penetrate clouds and put you at risk. Protect yourself from the sun no matter the weather.
- Be extra cautious at midday! The sun’s rays are at its strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. It is important to avoid direct exposure at these times.
- The same goes for the kids! Many parents are in the habit of using sunglasses and hats, but they forget to encourage their children to do the same. Make good eye health habits a part of your child’s routine too.
Enjoy your summer,
Doctors Tarantino and Cho
Tarantino Eye Center