The Eyes Have It

Summer precautions for our often-neglected but vitally important vision

By: Barbara C. Neff

With the official launch of summer, you're probably stocking up on sunscreen to protect your skin at the pool, Centennial Beach and while just going about your daily activities. But what about your eyes? They need proper protection from ultraviolet (UV) rays, too.

"The UV rays from the sun are not only dangerous for your skin but also for the structures in your eyes," says Ruth Williams, a board-certified ophthalmologist and president of the Wheaton Eye Clinic. In fact, sun exposure can lead to a range of problems in the eyes, from the life-threatening to the merely cosmetic.

For starters, sun exposure can cause squamous skin cancer. This type of cancer generally is not fatal if it occurs on the skin, but John Hagan, a clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says it is more dangerous when it occurs on the eyelid. "It can kill you because it can go into
the socket and then into the brain."

The eye itself is also vulnerable to sun exposure. The sun can damage the fibers in the outer surface of the eye, known as the conjunctiva. One possible result is pingueculum, a condition marked by the development of yellowish bumps in the corners of the eye. "The whites of the eyes are discolored, and the little bumps look like chicken fat on the eye," Hagan says. The bumps, however, create only cosmetic problems; they don't affect vision.
"A more aggressive form of damage is called pterygium," Hagan says. "It looks like flesh at the 3 o'clock and
9 o'clock positions of the eye, growing over the cornea toward the center of the pupil. It warps the cornea, causes irregular astigmatism that cannot be corrected with glasses and can adversely affect vision."

Lens Factor
But the sun strikes deeper than just the surface of the eye—it can cause significant damage to the lens. "The lens gives up its body to protect the retina, so when UV light comes in, the lens tries to absorb it," Hagan explains. "As we age, and the lens soaks up all of this, the lens fibers turn cloudy." While the condition (also known as cataracts) is a normal part of aging, Hagan says it's greatly accelerated
by sun exposure.

The selflessness of the lens may also produce changes related to macular degeneration. The sunlight that is absorbed by the lens—70 to 80 percent of the rays—focuses directly on the macula, the site of our central vision. "The solar rays can cause the changes of macular degeneration just like they can cause aging changes in the skin," Williams says. She cautions, however, that sun exposure is only one of the causes of both cataracts and macular degeneration.

For these reasons, not to mention wrinkle prevention, it's critical that you buy (and wear!) UV-protected sunglasses. "Sunglasses without UV protection increase sun exposure," Hagan says. "The pupil gets bigger behind sunglasses to let more light in, and, if they don't have a UV blocker, you're getting more exposure than just from regular glasses."

Solutions Abound
The good news is that you can buy UV-protected shades for as little as $10. Williams also notes that the tint doesn't matter. Some tints may seem more comfortable, but they don't provide any additional protection. "Just look at the little tab, and make sure it says 100-percent UV protection," Williams says.

Hagan has another suggestion, as well: "Instead of spending a fortune on sunglasses, spend $20 on a baseball hat. Otherwise, you're going to get sun exposure coming right down over the top of the glasses."

And don't forget the kids—they need the same protection as adults. "The great thing about making our kids wear sunglasses is that we can impact them for their whole lives," Williams says. "It gives them the chance for a lifetime of healthy vision."