It’s Summertime: Keep Your Eyes Protected!

Photo courtesy of Eben Wilson

As the days lengthen and the temperatures warm, lobstermen along the coast are preparing for another summer on the water. While every To Do list automatically includes items like repairing traps and painting buoys, it is worth adding a seemingly small but important item to the list: eye protection.

For lobstermen, sunglasses and hats are less a fashion statement and more an important tool. Hat brims can help shade your face and eyes from sunlight but they do not protect from the glare and reflection off the surface of the water. Proper eyewear is key to reducing the risk of both acute injury and chronic conditions that stem from overexposure to light.

Ultraviolet (UV) light is a group of wavelengths ranging from 10 to 400 nanometers on the electromagnetic spectrum. UV light is shorter than visible light, meaning that it isn’t noticeable to the human eye, and makes up about 10% of the light coming from the sun. And while UV light is instrumental in influencing the body to produce Vitamin D (responsible for absorption of calcium and other important minerals), it is also highly damaging when a person is exposed for long periods.

Damage from the sun

There are several common ailments that can result from overexposure to sunlight, ranging from temporary conditions that resolve with basic care to irreversible damage that may require extended treatment. Common symptoms include eye redness, blurred vision, general pain in the eye, light sensitivity, and tear production. If you, or someone you know, experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see an optometrist to confirm the underlying cause and determine proper treatment.

Photokeratitis, also called ultraviolet keratitis or snow blindness, is similar to a sunburn and causes swelling of the cornea. Symptoms of photokeratitis typically are not noticed until hours after exposure and include increased tears, blurred vision, and a painful feeling of sand in the eyes. This condition is usually temporary but needs to be treated with antibiotic tear eye drops. Photokeratitis is common among welders and can be prevented by wearing eye protection to block UV light.

Years of exposure to the sun can lead to the development of cataracts, a clouding of the lens in the eye. There are several different types of cataracts that form in different parts of the lens and may require surgery. Although there is some variation among the different types, most cataracts develop slowly and do not interfere with eyesight during the early stages. You may need to be checked for the development of cataracts if you are experiencing symptoms such as clouded, blurred, or dim vision, increased sensitivity to light or glare, or seeing what appears to be halos around lights.

Macular degeneration is another condition in which long-term sun exposure damages tissue within the retina. The macula is an area near the center of the retina that is made up of millions of sensitive, light-sensing cells and is responsible for our central vision. Although macular degeneration is most common in older individuals, evidence suggests that prolonged sun exposure contributes to the development of this condition. As the tissue within the macula begins to be compromised, vision becomes blurred and may eventually be lost entirely. Macular degeneration typically progresses slowly, but the rate may be faster in some individuals.

These are just a few examples of how prolonged sun exposure can negatively affect your eye health. Many other types of conditions can occur and a professional should be consulted for any significant change in the health of your eyes.

What to know when buying sunglasses

The amount of UV protection you receive from sunglasses has nothing to do with the color or darkness of the lens. Instead, look at the type of material used to make the lens. Polycarbonate lenses block 100% of UV light while triacetate (commonly used in cheap sunglasses) only blocks about 40% of UV light.

The amount of UV protection you receive from sunglasses has nothing to do with the color or darkness of the lens.

Some sunglasses have UV protection but are not polarized. However, all polarized sunglasses block 100% of UV light, so they might be worth the extra cost.

If you wear prescription glasses, you might consider buying photochromic lenses which provide 100% UV protection. These lenses appear clear when indoors but darken automatically in sunlight and are available in a wide variety of styles, including bifocal prescriptions. Photochromic lenses may be a good choice if you are often moving between indoor and outdoor settings or do not want to keep track of two pairs of prescription glasses.
When considered in the context of years spent on the water, purchasing a quality pair of sunglasses and using them consistently makes sense in terms of your long-term vision.