You may think of ultraviolet danger in terms of beaches, pools, and other places of summer fun—one survey found nearly a third of people only use eye protection in warm weather—but UV radiation knows no season. In fact, winter snows can reflect the light, making the danger worse. However, precautions are important on cloudy days or when there’s no snow on the ground as well. Any time you are outside, you are exposed to UV and risking associated vision issues, such as cataracts or skin cancer around the eyes. The damage starts early, too. By age 15, 80 percent of children show some sign of UV damage to their eyes, indicating a risk of cataracts, glaucoma, or macular degeneration years or decades down the road, or a condition called pterygium. UV light damages every part of the eye over time.
Pterygium, also known as surfer’s eye, results from exposure to sun, sand, and wind damaging the front layer of the eye, called the conjunctiva. It usually occurs on the side of the eye closest to the nose, a result of the way ultraviolet light beds as it passes through the cornea. The damage results in a growth that is considered benign, but can cause vision problems if it grows in front of the pupil. Symptoms include redness, blurred vision, eye irritation, and sometimes burning. Pterygium can usually be safely left untreated, but sometimes they have to be surgically removed.
Some forms of glaucoma are also caused by UV exposure. That can lead to blindness if left untreated, and in fact is the second-leading cause of blindness worldwide, affecting 10 percent of people over 80. People with glaucoma generally have pressure in the eye, which causes damage to the optic nerve. As the disease progresses, patients often gradually lose peripheral vision or experience eye pain, nausea, or vomiting. However, glaucoma can progress a significant amount before it becomes noticeable, which is why it’s important to get regular exams. Because the damage can be halted but not reversed, treatment for glaucoma is more effective the earlier it’s started. Medicated eye drops—including beta blockers and prostaglandins—are used to reduce eye pressure by slowing the production of fluid or improving drainage. In severe cases, glaucoma, too, may require surgery.