Children's Eyes Need Protection from Sun's Rays

Millions at risk because parents don't give them sunglasses

SATURDAY, June 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Nearly half of American parents don't regularly provide their children with sunglasses that protect their eyes from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays.

And that oversight is setting the kids up for potential vision problems later in life, according to a recent survey by the Vision Council of America.

In this survey, 45.9 percent of parents said their children seldom or never wear sunglasses with full UV protection even though 82 percent of the parents said it's important for children to wear sunglasses with full UV protection.

The survey findings surprised and alarmed ophthalmologist Dr. Susan Taub, who says it means the vision of millions of American children is at risk.

The sun is as much a threat to your eyes as it is to your skin, says Taub, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Northwestern University.

Sunburned corneas, cancer of the eyelid, cataracts and macular degeneration are among the eye problems caused or aggravated by too much UV exposure.

"The ultraviolet rays of the sun are damaging to all the layers of the eye as you go from the front to the back," Taub says.

Children's eyes are more susceptible because their lenses don't block as much UV as adult lenses do, Taub says. Children also tend to spend more time outdoors than their parents, and most UV eye damage is cumulative.

That means the more time a child's eyes are exposed to harmful UV rays, the more likely they'll suffer vision problems in the future.

"The younger you are that you start the habit of protecting your eyes from the rays of the sun, the healthier your eyes are going to be," Taub says.

Parents go to great lengths to protect their children's skin from UV rays, and they should take eye protection just as seriously, Taub says.

"The onus is really on the parents to make sure they take precautions," says Betsy van Die, media relations manager for Prevent Blindness America, a volunteer eye health and safety organization.

Not only are children outside more than adults, youngsters tend to spend a lot of time in places where there is a lot of sun reflection -- beaches, pools and amusement parks, van Die says.

The sun's UV radiation contains UVA and UVB wavelength radiation, and both can damage your eyes. UVB can cause a sunburn on your cornea, the clear membrane that covers the front of your eyes.

Corneal sunburn is common in people who spend long hours at the beach or other sunny places without proper eye protection. It isn't permanent, but it can be extremely painful and cause temporary vision loss, van Die says.

UVA penetrates deep into the eye, and may injure your macula. That's the part of the retina responsible for sight in the center field of vision.

Both kinds of UV rays can contribute to cataracts, which affect more than half of all Americans by age 80. Too much eye exposure to UV may contribute to macular degeneration, which is a major cause of vision loss for Americans over the age of 55.

There's more. You risk cancer of the eyelids if you don't wear good sunglasses. Another UV-related eye condition is pterygium. That's a growth of tissue that develops on the white of the eye and may extend into the cornea, where it may block vision. It can be removed surgically, but often recurs.

Taub and van Die say protecting your children's eyes from the sun is simple -- a wide-brimmed hat that shades their face and sunglasses that block both kinds of UV.

Children's sunglasses don't have to be expensive, just as long as they provide recommended UV protection. Look for a sticker that says the sunglasses block 99 percent to 100 percent of UVA and UVB.

Don't buy them if the sticker just says the sunglasses "block harmful UV," van Die says.

Just because glasses are dark doesn't mean they offer UV protection, which is actually a clear coating on the lenses. If you're not sure whether your sunglasses have the recommended UV protection, you can take them to an eye doctor to get them checked on a special machine, Taub says.

Buying the proper sunglasses won't do any good if your children won't wear them. Make sure the sunglasses fit properly and are comfortable, Taub says.

Children's sunglasses should be made of polycarbonate, not glass, to protect against shattering and potential eye injury, van Die says. Check the sunglasses for bubbles or distortions that could cause squinting, blinking, headaches and dizziness.

What To Do

You can find out more about UV, your eyes and sunglasses at Prevent Blindness America and the National Consumers League.

SOURCES: Susan Taub, M.D., Taub Eye Clinic, and assistant professor, ophthalmology, Northwestern University, Chicago; Betsy van Die, media relations manager, Prevent Blindness America, Schaumburg, Ill.
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