UV light does not just damage your skin — it can wreak all sorts of havoc on your eyes too, even leading to blindness. (Photo: Getty Images)
Bethany Heitman realized something was wrong with one of her eyes a few years ago. “I was sitting and talking with a friend and she was like, ‘What’s in your eye?!’’’ the 31-year-old editor remembers. It was a whitish dot close to the corner of her eye that wouldn’t move. “I got horribly self-conscious about it,” Heitman told Yahoo Health. She was also nervous because her mother had a dot in her eye as well — and it was growing into her cornea.
Bethany Heitman wearing her requisite sunglasses. (Courtesy photo)
While she was a little worried about the bump, Heitman did nothing about it for a while — then she noticed another one had developed in her other eye. “They would both get red irritation around them, and it looked like I hadn’t slept well,” she says. “There were just these two yellowish, ugly, raised bumps on my eye that got red a lot.”
It got so bad that she went to an eye doctor, who explained to her that the bumps were caused by sun damage. “He asked if I grew up in Florida or Southern California … I was born in Los Angeles,” she says. When you live in a warm climate, her doctor explained, you spend a lot of time outside, increasing the odds of getting sun damage to your eyes — especially if you don’t wear sunglasses, like many kids.
Heitman was diagnosed with a condition called pinguecula, a thickening of the membrane on the white part of the eye close to the cornea, which is more common in middle-aged or older people who spend a lot of time in the sun. If sun damage continues for someone with pinguecula, it can lead to a condition called pterygium, which can permanently disfigure a person’s eye.
Heitman’s doctor said she could have surgery, which would involve removing a piece of her eye from under her eyelid and transplanting to the spots where the bumps are, but advised against it. Because Heitman wears contacts, the bumps are constantly irritated by her lenses, but she says it’s more annoying than anything.
Unfortunately, everyone is at risk for eye damage from the sun, says optometrist Dora Adamopoulos medical advisor to The Vision Council and owner of Eye2Eye Optometry Corner in Alexandria, Va. However, people with blue eyes are more susceptible (blue irises have less of the protective pigment melanin), as are those who live closer to the equator or work outside.
Certain medications — like birth control pills, tetracycline, and sulfa drugs — can also put you at risk, says Mirwat Sami, a Houston-based, board-certified ophthalmologist specializing in ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Adamopoulos says UV damage to the eyes typically happens over time, but short-term damage can also occur if you spend too much time in the sun just one day without proper eye protection. “Short-term UV exposure can leave eyes bloodshot, swollen, or hypersensitive to light,” she tells Yahoo Health. “But over a longer term, this exposure can accelerate serious eye health problems.”
According to a 2015 survey conducted by The Vision Council, 26 percent of adults never or rarely wear sunglasses outside, and 58 percent of Americans spend the most time outdoors during hours when UV rays are the most risky for your eyes (8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.).
Extended unprotected exposure to those rays can cause cataracts, macular degeneration, pinguecula (like Heitman has), pterygia, and photokeratis (eye sunburn), which can cause temporary vision loss, says Sami.
While there are some surgeries that can help alleviate symptoms of sun damage to the eyes, UV damage is largely “cumulative and irreversible,” says Adamopoulos.
The solution: Wear sunglasses — and not the cheap kind
Look for glasses that block 100 percent of UV rays and absorb most high-energy visible (HEV) radiation, Sami advises. It’s also best to opt for ones with large frames or a close-fitting. wraparound style.
The American Optometric Association recommends looking for lenses that screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light, and are perfectly matched in color. A wide-brimmed hat will also help block out excess light, the organization says.
Heitman has taken that advice seriously, especially after she was told her bumps could get bigger — and more cause more damage — if she doesn’t protect her eyes. “Now I’m religious about wearing sunglasses,” she says.