by Colleen McMahon
Most people have suffered sunburn on their faces, and even their eyelids after a long nap in the sun, but did you know that your eyeballs can also be sunburned? Anderson Cooper discovered this recently after a few hours on a boat in Portugal (Anderson Cooper Story). He woke up that night suffering pain and a gritty feeling in his eyes, and soon discovered that he had a condition called photokeratitis, damage to the surface of the eye caused by exposure to strong light.
Since we don’t generally stare directly at the sun, photokeratitis usually results from spending time on a surface that strongly reflects the rays of the sun, such as snow or water, with your eyes unprotected. The form of photokeratitis most people have heard of is snow blindness. Welders can suffer a version called “arc eye” or “welder’s flash”. All the different names refer to this same condition.
Photokeratitis, like sunburn, usually occurs painlessly. The pain begins several hours after exposure, and can become quite severe. Although reports said that Cooper was “temporarily blind”, the condition does not cause actual blindness. Rather, it becomes too painful to open the eyes. The surface of the eye, called the cornea, will heal itself if left alone. Like the skin, it needs time to get rid of the damaged cells and create new ones, and as that happens the pain will decrease and finally go away.
If you find you have photokeratitis after being exposed to strong sunlight, the best cure is simply time. Eye doctors suggest lubricating eyedrops to ease the feeling of dryness, and spending time in a darkened room, resting, without using the eyes to read or watch television.
Not only can this condition ruin several days of a vacation, it can cause long term damage, leading to loss of vision from macular degeneration, or even cancerous growths in or around the eyes.
The best step to take against photokeratitis is not to get it at all. For this reason, a high quality pair of sunglasses or goggles is a must when skiing, sailing, or sunning on a beach. Look for sunglasses that block 95 per cent or more of both types of ultraviolet rays (A and B). Make sure the lenses are big enough to cover the area around the eyes. The most protective styles have wrap around frames that also block rays bouncing toward the eyes from the sides. Remember that ultraviolet rays are not blocked by clouds, so make sure to wear your eye protection even on cloudy days. This simple step will help insure you won’t experience the painful awakening that Anderson Cooper did!