Can your eyes get sunburned? Diagnosis and treatment

Posted on

20 May 2021

Author: Kate Green

eye sunburn

What is eye sunburn – or ‘photokeratitis’?


You’re probably reading the title of this article and thinking, “what?! How?!” We’ve all heard of sunburned skin and, if you’re really unlucky, you might have experienced a sunburned scalp. But, unfortunately, there’s another body part to add to the list of places which can get sunburned – and it’s your eyes. They, just like your skin, can be damaged if they’re exposed to too many UV rays. The sun emits invisible ultraviolet rays which cause damage to our skin and eyes, triggering a condition called photokeratitis. This is when the thin outermost layer of the cornea and your conjunctiva become burned and inflamed by the UV rays.


Like with sunburned skin, it may take a few hours after exposure to the sun for the discomfort to begin, but you shouldn’t feel any severe pain. The symptoms of photokeratitis typically last a day or two and should gradually improve as time goes on. In more serious cases of eye sunburn, your outermost corneal layer may be damaged to the extent that its nerve endings are exposed. This can take longer to heal from than a more mild eye sunburn, as well as feeling more painful with an accompanying grit-like feeling.


How are you most likely to sunburn your eyes?


Aside from simply being outside on a hot, sunny day, photokeratitis can also occur in snowy areas, or near large bodies of water. This is because snow reflects up to almost 90% of UV rays, while water can reflect up to 20% of UV rays, meaning that the impact of the rays is much more powerful – and therefore more damaging.

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People often suffer with photokeratitis when they have been skiing or hiking in snowy mountains without protective eyewear. The higher up you are, the greater the damage caused by the UV rays, so spending time in snow-topped mountains can actually have a terrible impact on your eyes.


Further to this, the UV rays can even penetrate cloud, so it’s important that you invest in quality protective eyewear, even if it doesn’t feel like a particularly sunny day!


What are the symptoms of sunburned eyes?


As with sunburned skin, you might not actually notice your eyes have suffered sun damage until the symptoms kick in later on in the day. These symptoms might include:

  • Discomfort
  • Red eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Headache
  • Twitching eyelid
  • Foreign body sensation
  • Halos around light
  • Swelling
  • Watery eyes
  • Small pupils


The more severe and uncomfortable your symptoms are, the more likely it is that you were exposed to UV rays for an extended period. In really severe cases of photokeratitis, you might actually experience a period of colour changes to your vision. If you notice any changes, you might want to visit your optician to ensure that there is no lasting damage.


How can you treat sunburned eyes?


Treating sunburned eyes mainly involves managing the discomfort and waiting for the symptoms to pass. As uncomfortable or painful as it might be, it’s important to remember that photokeratitis will pass without medication, and that medication won’t speed up the healing process – it just helps you to manage your discomfort.

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Home remedies for sunburned eyes might include:

  • Using a cold compress on your eyes
  • Hydrating eyes with artificial tears
  • Removing your contact lenses
  • Sitting in a dark room
  • Taking paracetamol and ibuprofen
  • Refraining from rubbing your eyes


In rare cases, there might be some lasting damage from eye sunburn. You should consider visiting your optician if you experience any of the following symptoms, as these could be an indication of more serious damage:

  • Halos appearing around lights
  • Extreme light sensitivity
  • Poor night vision
  • Blurry or clouded vision


Long-term effects of sunburned eyes


Although sunburned eyes are usually harmless, there can sometimes be long-term effects which come with repeated photokeratitis over a number of years. Recurring corneal damage from UV rays might lead to cancer, macular degeneration or severely dry eyes, all of which pose a risk to your overall vision and eye health.


Over-exposure to the sun can also bring on the development of cataracts earlier than they might have otherwise occurred, impairing your vision further. Cataracts require surgical removal and, without treatment, can progress to a level which renders you legally blind.


The best thing to do is invest in proper sunglasses as prevention is much better than treatment in these cases. Ensuring that you have protective eyewear will mean that you’re doing the utmost to protect your vision whilst out in the sun.

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