Summer Sun Is a Vision Threat

Yard work, sports, other warm-weather pursuits pose risks, too

TUESDAY, July 13, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- An estimated 2.4 million people in the United States suffer eye injuries every year, and most of them occur during summer.

The result: Nearly 1 million Americans have permanent vision impairment due to injury, and more than 75 percent of these people become blind in one eye.

To spread the word that summer months pose particular risks to your vision, the American Academy of Ophthalmology has declared July as Eye Injury Prevention Month. As you set about your summer activities, doctors urge you to take precautions to make sure your eyes are safe.

The most insidious eye injuries can come from the summer's main attraction -- the sun.

Ultraviolet rays can cause sunburned corneas, cancer of the eyelid, and increased risk of eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration. But those diseases won't develop until long after you've sustained an eye injury that you might not even know you have, said New Orleans ophthalmologist Dr. Monica L. Monica.

"You're not aware of the damage that's going on with UV rays until you're much older," Monica said.

She recommends that everyone wear sunglasses that will block ultraviolet light. "These don't have to be expensive sunglasses," Monica said. "Just make sure it says 100-percent UV protection."

You also should wear eye protection when playing your favorite sports. For instance, baseball and softball account for a surprising amount of eye damage, with one in every 20 serious eye injuries related to either of the two sports.

A newer sport -- paintball -- has been blamed for an increasing number of eye injuries, said Dr. Stephen Pflugfelder, a professor of ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Emergency room visits related to paintball eye injuries have risen dramatically, from 545 in 1998 to more than 1,200 in 2000, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). More than 40 of those injured were children.

Paintball injuries can be severe because of the small size and high velocity of the projectiles, which can travel up to 300 feet a second.

"When someone gets hit, it causes severe damage," Pflugfelder said. "Often their eye is lost."

And because the paintballs are small, they can slip past the orbit -- the bony ridge surrounding the eye socket that protects the eye from injury -- and do direct damage, Pflugfelder added.

Eye protection is a must when handling a paintball gun, even if you're not out on a course. Many paintball injuries occur in the home with people playing with the guns, Pflugfelder said.

Fireworks are another summer attraction that can cause major eye damage. Fireworks-related eye injuries resulted in 1,200 emergency room visits in 2002, according to the CPSC.

Experts recommend going to a public fireworks display rather than setting off fireworks yourself.

Summer's also the time when home-improvement buffs are in their glory. Doctors urge the use of safety glasses, tight-fitting goggles, or a face mask to ensure that your project doesn't end in disaster.

Goggles or safety glasses also should be worn whenever you're doing yard work with power equipment. And you should make sure that anyone who's nearby is similarly equipped when you operate a lawn mower, power trimmer, or edger.

"It's easy for a mower to catch an aberrant rock and throw it up in your face," Monica said.

To further lessen your chances for injury, always check for stones, twigs, or other debris before using lawn equipment. They can become dangerous projectiles after shooting off a lawn mower's blades or a weed trimmer's cord.

Goggles also should be used when working with household chemicals, such as cleaning solutions, pool chemicals, or garden sprays, many of which can burn the eyes' delicate tissues.

"You just don't see people cleaning the bathroom with protective eyewear, but we use some pretty caustic cleaners," Monica said.

Similar precautions should be used when jump-starting a car -- battery acid, sparks, or debris flying from a damaged auto battery can cause severe damage.

Eyewear approved by the American National Standard Practice for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection provides the best defense. Look for the "ANSI Z87" mark on the frames or lenses. Goggles approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials also provide good eye protection for people playing sports.

Other safety tips from the American Academy of Ophthalmology include:

  • Wear eye protection when using bungee cords, which are becoming an increasingly common cause of eye injury.
  • Keep children in the back seat of vehicles because deploying air bags can lead to serious eye injuries.
  • Buy safe toys for kids, avoiding slingshots, BB guns, paintball guns, and toys with sharp edges.

More information

To learn more about ways to protect your eyes from injury, visit Prevent Blindness America.

SOURCES: Monica L. Monica, M.D., Ph.D., ophthalmologist, New Orleans; Stephen Pflugfelder, M.D., professor, ophthalmology, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston
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