Photokeratitis: How To Prevent & Treat Sunburned Eyes

Photokeratitis: How To Prevent & Treat Sunburned Eyes

Photokeratitis is an eye condition caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, either produced naturally by sunlight or by artificial sources. It’s often understood that photokeratitis is similar to a sunburn, except rather than affecting the skin, it impacts the eyes. Specifically, during photokeratitis, UV rays cause damage to the cornea (the transparent, dome-shaped tissue covering the front of the eye) as well as the conjunctiva (the clear tissue that lines the inside of the eyelids and the whites of the eyes).

It’s not only direct sunlight that can cause photokeratitis. Cleveland Clinic explains that any sources of ultraviolet light can cause this condition, including but not limited to the lamps in tanning beds and booths, laser lights, halogen desk lamps, and arc welding equipment. Photokeratitis can also occur as a result of exposure to sunlight reflected from ice and snow, especially at high elevations, such as mountains.

Symptoms of Photokeratitis

If you are suffering from photokeratitis, you may experience one or more of the following uncomfortable symptoms:

  • Swelling
  • Headaches
  • Seeing halos
  • Blurred vision
  • Twitching eyelids
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Temporary vision loss
  • Color changes in vision
  • Painful, red, or watery eyes

These symptoms are usually temporary. The College of Optometrists explains that the onset of symptoms often occurs within 6-12 hours of exposure, though in some cases it can take as little as one hour. Most people with photokeratitis experience the aforementioned symptoms for 24 to 48 hours. However, the longer the eyes were exposed to UV light without protection, the more severe and prolonged the symptoms of photokeratitis may be.

While most of the symptoms of photokeratitis subside in a short period of time, it can increase your risk of developing more serious, long-term complications, particularly cataract or macular degeneration. These are often the result of long-term exposure to UV radiation, even in small amounts.

How to Prevent Photokeratitis

The good news is the photokeratitis can often be prevented beforehand, or at the very least, the severity of its symptoms can be mitigated. It’s important to take steps to protect your eyes from overexposure to UV rays. In order to protect yourself against photokeratitis, be sure to take the following precautions:

  • Wear sunglasses outdoors. Look for sunglasses that offer maximum protection – they should absorb 99% to 100% of UV rays. Remember, sunglasses should be worn even in cloudy or overcast weather, as the glare from surfaces such as snow or water can cause damage to the eyes.
  • Wear a hat or visor outdoors. Just like a hat can prevent a sunburn from occurring on your face, it can also stop photokeratitis from developing. Always try to wear a wide-brimmed hat or visor when you know you’ll be spending time outdoors, even if the weather is overcast.
  • Wear protective equipment at work. If you work in a job in which you are exposed to UV radiation, it is imperative to wear the proper protective equipment to safeguard your eye health, such as safety glasses, goggles, or face shields. Ensure you do your research and speak to your employer about what sort of equipment is necessary.
  • Consider UV absorbing contacts. This special type of contact lens works by blocking UV rays before they can reach the eye. Speak with your eye doctor to see if you’re a candidate for UV absorbing contacts.

How Photokeratitis Is Treated

As mentioned, the symptoms of photokeratitis are usually temporary, and can often be resolved with at-home remedies. What’s more, the symptoms typically begin to subside within a matter of days.

If you begin experiencing symptom of photokeratitis, go inside as soon as possible. Turn the lights off in order to keep the room darkened and remove contact lenses. Refrain from rubbing your eyes, as it can cause further irritation. You can use a cold compress, such as a wet washcloth placed over the eyes, to alleviate the discomfort. Alternatively, try artificial tears, which are eyedrops used to moisturize dry eyes. Certain over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, can also help ease photokeratitis symptoms. While experiencing symptoms, it’s important to rest with your eyes closed as much as possible. If you must go outside, be sure to wear sunglasses and a hat.

Usually, photokeratitis goes away on its own and does not require the attention of an ophthalmologist. However, if the signs of photokeratitis last for more than two days and are accompanied by more severe symptoms, including loss of vision or intense pain, it is strongly recommended that you seek medical attention. An ophthalmologist will be able to determine how much damage has been caused to the eye through photokeratitis. They may use eye drops containing fluorescein to diagnose the photokeratitis, which, in turn, helps identify irregularities in the cornea’s surface caused by UV ray exposure.

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