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Winter Sports Safety: Protecting your Eyes from Snowblindness

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.

Posted in: Eye Care for Athletes

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