Winterizing Your Eyes

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed the leaves on the trees turning colour and falling, the geese gathering together and bailing out for warmer climates, an extreme drop in temperature and even the first signs of, dare I say it, snow. There is no denying it, winter is upon us once again. Time to get out the heavy coats and boots, put your winter tires on your car, and prepare for another Manitoba winter. But have you thought about including your eyes in your winter preparations? Are you aware that winter can be a dangerous season for your eyes?

What is Photokeratitis?

Photokeratitis is a very painful eye disorder brought on by exposure to the Ultraviolet (UV) radiation produced by the sun. One form of photokeratitis, known as snow blindness, is caused by UV rays reflecting off the snow into your eyes. The snow both reflects and magnifies the UV rays, creating an effect similar to staring directly into the sun. The result is, in effect, a sunburn on your cornea, causing painful burning, swelling, watery eyes. Much like a regular sunburn, you usually won’t notice it until the damage is already done.

How Dangerous is Snow Blindness?

Snow blindness can cause a number of very uncomfortable symptoms in your eyes including pain, swelling, blurriness, redness, tearing and light sensitivity, to name a few. It may also cause you to experience headaches, see halos, and occasionally even temporary vision loss. In many cases these symptoms are only temporary and can be relieved by getting out of the sun, placing a cold washcloth on your closed eyes and letting time heal the damage. However, there is the potential of doing permanent damage to the retina, so it would be in your best interest to avoid taking the chance altogether.

Is Snow Blindness the Only Danger from the Winter Sun?

Although snow blindness is a serious concern, it is not the only danger your eyes face in the winter. The combination of cold, dry air and reflected UV rays also puts you in danger of developing dry eye syndrome. It may also contribute to the development of cataracts and macular degeneration. This does not mean that you should hide in a darkened room all winter, just take proper precautions.

How Do I Protect Myself from the Sun’s UV Rays?

Sun protection in winter isn’t much different from sun protection in summer. Get yourself a good pair of sunglasses, ones that block 99-100% of UV light. Remember that UV rays can hurt your eyes even on cloudy days and act accordingly. If you enjoy winter sports, be sure to wear UV blocking wraparound sports goggles. And for extra protection, you may want to use natural tears eye drops to help prevent dry eyes. But the best protection is blocking as much UV radiation from reaching your eyes as possible. If you have any reason to believe your eyes have been damaged by UV rays, see your optometrist immediately. Don’t take chances with your vision.