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Sunburned Eyes? Beware of Snow Blindness!

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Playing outside in a snowy winter wonderland can be magical. Under clear skies in the sunshine, the soft white landscape becomes just about irresistible, whether at home or travelling on a winter-weather get-away. 

Before you let your children run outside to build the most adorable snowman or fling themselves onto the ski slopes, make sure their eyes are well protected. Sun and snow can be a dangerous combination for both the eyes and skin. 

Sunlight Reflected in the Snow

We all know why we need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen in the summer. Winter, however, can be deceiving. It's an illusion to assume that we are safe from sunburns during the colder season. 

Snow acts as a powerful mirror for sunlight and magnifies the effects of UV rays which would otherwise be absorbed by the ground. As a result, the eyes are exposed to both the UV radiation bouncing back from the snowy carpet and the rays shining down directly from the sun. 

If your family is skiing or snowboarding up in the mountains, you need to be even more careful! UV rays are more powerful at higher altitudes. Another important factor to remember is that ultraviolet radiation penetrates through clouds, so even if the sun is hidden behind them, it can still damage your eyes.

Can I Get Sunburned Eyes?

As you may have already guessed, yes —it is possible to get sunburned eyes. The condition is called snow blindness, or photokeratitis. Although most people do not actually experience permanent vision loss, photokeratitis is usually painful, causes extreme sensitivity to light, and can take up to two weeks to fully heal. 

A single day of playing outside in the snow and being exposed to intensive sun glare can be enough to cause snow blindness— though usually with a delay of several hours following sun exposure. What’s worse, if the eyes are repeatedly sunburned there is a risk of long-term damage. 

Symptoms of Snow Blindness

Just like a typical skin sunburn appears only after having been exposed to the sun’s rays, the same is true for the eyes. One sign of overexposure to UV is a stinging or burning sensation in the eyes, or a feeling of having sand in your eyes after a day spent in the snow. 

When eyes are sunburned, they become highly sensitive to light, making it difficult to be outside. Other symptoms include blurred vision, watery eyes, and swollen eyelids. In rare cases, photokeratitis can even cause temporary vision loss, but it doesn't usually last longer than a day or two.

How Do I Protect My Eyes From Sunburn?

Prevent overexposure to sunlight by wearing sunglasses that absorb at least 95% of ultraviolet radiation when you go outside, no matter what time of year it is. An even more effective solution for winter activities is to strap on a pair of well-fitting UV protective sports eyewear, such as ski goggles. Wrap-around styles are ideal because they stay on even when you're active, and block the sun’s rays from entering your eyes from the sides too. 

For winter sports lovers, there are plenty of good reasons to wear protective eyewear, and what works well in sports can be good for play as well. 

How Can I Treat Sunburned Eyes?

It’s after the fact, and you’re suffering from photokeratitis… now what? Give your eyes a rest. 

  • Stay out of the sun for a few days until the symptoms die down. 
  • You may find it comforting to wear sunglasses even when indoors. 
  • For additional relief, place a cool, damp cloth over the closed eyelids while resting.
  • Don’t wear contact lenses until the eyes return to normal. 
  • Artificial tears can help keep the eyes moistened, soothe discomfort and promote healing. However, it's important to consult an eye doctor before running to the pharmacy, since some eye drops are not well-suited for this condition. You can give us a call at 850-204-7289.

Now that you know the risks and precautions to take, you’re all set to enjoy the winter wonderland! Dr. Leonard at Coastal Family Eyecare is happy to help you protect yourself and your family from snow blindness, and offers expert treatment for sunburned eyes. 

Call Our Two Locations!

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Dear Patients,

As of Tuesday evening, March 17th, the CDC has recommended that all routine eye care be deferred until further notice, in order to slow the transmission of COVID-19 through our community.

Please be assured that we are still available to triage all urgent and emergent calls during this challenging time.

We are officially closing our offices effective at 3:00pm today, March 20 th and tentatively plan to reopen on April 1 st . We are rescheduling all routine visits and are available by phone to triage ocular emergencies.

Our phone lines will be open:

Monday the 23 rd and 30 th : 10:00am to 5:00pm

Tuesday-Friday (24 th -27 th and the 31 st ): 9:00am to 3:00pm

What does this mean?

1) If you are scheduled for an annual eye examination we will tentatively reschedule you starting April 1 st

2) If you are running out of a medication please contact us and we can transmit a refill electronically to your pharmacy.

3) If you have an issue which cannot wait for an office visit, contact us and we will schedule a Telephone appointment with one of our doctors. Medicare has temporarily relaxed its telehealth rules to allow this type of communication during the pandemic crisis. Other insurers may follow suit and allow for reimbursement of virtual care costs. The consultation must be initiated at your request.

4) If you have an ocular emergency we are, as always, available to help you at any time. Call 1-850-455-0120 andwait for instructions at the end of the message.

Dr. Leonard or Dr. Charbonneau will discuss your condition by phone and make the best treatment decision for you on a one on one basis.

5) Please remember that 80% of COVID-19 cases are mild and resolve within a week. However, if you feel your symptoms are worsening, call ahead before visiting your doctor’s office or emergency department and tell them you have or may have COVID-19. This will help the office protect themselves and other patients.

The CDC has many wonderful resources. Arming yourself and your family with clear information will help you avoid undue stress.

https://bit.ly/2WxWYIe and https://bit.ly/33FBlXZ

Together we will weather this storm.

With sincerest wishes for your continued good health we remain at your service,

Dr. Clare L Leonard

Dr. Mary Charbonneau