If you’re hitting the slopes this winter, you may already be familiar with the term “snow blindness,” a painful, temporary loss of vision that usually affects skiers and snowboarders. However, you don’t actually have to be near snow to experience snow blindness—in fact, many cases are experienced in the summer. Keep reading to learn more.
As we mentioned in the title, snow blindness is essentially a sunburn on the eyes, because just like a skin sunburn, it’s caused by overexposure to the sun’s UV rays. The medical term for snow blindness is photokeratitis, with “photo” meaning “light” and “keratitis” meaning inflammation of the cornea.
The terms “snowblind” and “snow blindness” have become popular because snow is highly reflective of ultraviolet radiation. In fact, snow can reflect more than 80 percent of the UV rays that fall on it. There’s also the fact that skiing, mountain climbing, and snowboarding usually take place at relatively high altitudes, where the sun’s UV rays are stronger. Combined, these factors can double your risk of getting sunburned eyes while enjoying a winter activity.
People can become “snow blind” during spring and summer, because water and white sand are also highly reflective of the sun’s UV rays. Television journalist Anderson Cooper experienced snow-free snow blindness firsthand a few years ago when he spent a couple hours on a boat in Portugal without sunglasses. The reporter told interviewers that, after a day in the sun, he woke up in the middle of the night with symptoms of burning eyes and a feeling there was sand or grit in his eyes. He ended up, according to his report, “blind for 36 hours”.
Not only can you become snow blind without snow — it can happen without any sunlight at all! Photo-keratitis can sometimes occur from man-made sources of ultraviolet radiation, such as a welder’s torch. Though this type of injury usually is called a “flash burn” of the cornea, the mechanism of action and symptoms are essentially identical to those of snow blindness. Sun lamps and tanning booths can also cause photo-keratitis if proper eye protection is not used.
Whether you are a skier, a fisherman, a welder, or none of the above, the solution for preventing snow blindness is the same: wear properly-fitted eye protection with a close-fitting, wrap-style frame or snow goggles. When purchasing, make sure that the lenses block 100 percent of UV rays. You can view some of our suggestions for the best high-end sunglasses here. If you are unsure whether your current sunglasses block 100 percent of the sun’s UV rays, ask your Raleigh eye doctor to check them for you.
Finally, if you do end up harming your eyes this season, stop by and see our skilled optometrists at Raleigh Eye Care! We can help relieve your symptoms and monitor your recovery progress. To schedule an appointment with us, click here.