Winter Sports Safety: Protecting your Eyes from Snowblindness

Posted By Key-Whitman Eye Center || 21-Jan-2015

If you have ever been sunburned, you know just how painful it can be. Imagine having sunburn on your eyes. It may sound unreal, but that is what can happen when snowblindness occurs.

Snowblindness is a common form of photokeratitis, a painful eye condition that can occur when the eye is exposed to UV rays from the sun without proper protection. It affects the surface layer of the cornea and the conjunctiva, which is the layer covering the whites of the eye and the insides of the eyelids.

Exposure to sunlight is the main cause of photokeratitis, although man-made sources of UV light can also damage the eye. Sunlight reflected from sand, water, ice and snow can cause this painful condition, as can watching a solar eclipse without a proper viewing device.

Snowblindness is photokeratitis caused by the reflection of UV rays off ice and snow, and it is particularly common in areas of high altitude, where the air is thinner and thus provides less protection from UV rays.

Symptoms of photokeratitis

Similar to sunburn, you won’t notice the symptoms of snowblindness or photokeratitis until after the damage has been done. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Blurriness
  • Tearing
  • Gritty feeling
  • Swelling
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Headache
  • Seeing halos
  • Small pupils
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Rarely, temporary vision loss

Symptoms increase in severity based on the length of time your eyes are exposed to UV light.

During ski season, cases of snowblindness are particularly high. In fact, according to the National Ski Patrol Association, the incidence of snowblindness due to overexposure to ultraviolet sunlight nearly triples during spring ski season (March through May). This is in part due to the fact that the sun’s heat intensifies during these months.

How to protect your eyes

Even on a cloudy day, your eyes are at risk of snowblindness, and symptoms are often slow to develop, making it easy for a skier to ski all day without protection or any eye irritation only to notice the intense pain of a sunburned cornea hours later.

Don’t let the risk of snowblindness prevent you from enjoying your favorite winter sports. With proper eye protection, you can prevent painful damage to your eyes from the sun.

If you plan to be on the slopes this ski season, be sure you have goggles or wrap-around glasses made of polycarbonate plastic designed to block UV rays. Even if you aren’t out skiing, you should always wear UV-blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes from damage by the sun. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat can also help protect your eyes from sun damage. If you have children, be sure their eyes are also properly protected.

Treating snowblindness

In most cases, symptoms of snowblindness will gradually go away on their own, but there are some things you can do to get a little relief from this painful eye condition.

First, get out of the sun and go into a dark room. Then try placing a cold washcloth over your closed eyes or using artificial tears.

To be safe, contact your eye doctor and discuss your symptoms. Your ophthalmologist may recommend pain relievers or antibiotic eyedrops.

Categories: Eye Care for Athletes
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