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Sun's Sin on Your Pupils

Jeepers, creepers, why don't you shade those peepers!

SATURDAY, May 12 (HealthScout) -- As summer approaches, it's hard to make a move without hearing warnings about skin cancer and covering up your skin. But experts say the ever-increasing ultraviolet (UV) rays you are subjected to can also take a toll on your eyes.

Just as skin cancer usually takes years of sun exposure to develop, long-term exposure to the sun can cause such potentially blinding conditions as cataracts and macular degeneration.

To warn the public of the importance of shielding the eyes from UV rays, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) has designated May as UV Safety Month.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when getting sunglasses is to make sure they offer UV protection, says Dr. John B. Jeffers, director of emergency services and resident education at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.

Sunglasses without such protection can even be harmful, he says.

"The public often thinks the darker the sunglasses the better. But if the dark lenses don't have a UV filter, what happens is the eye's pupil dilates because you've got the shading over your eyes, but the UV rays go right through and your eye is even more exposed," he adds.

And while sunglasses may look a little awkward on children, they are the ones who may need the protection most.

"One of the big problems about sun exposure in childhood is [children] have a long time to manifest the adverse effects," explains Dr. Katherine Shea, adjunct assistant professor in community and family medicine at Duke University.

"In general, any environmental exposure has a longer time to rear its ugly head."

But whether you're buying for kids or adults, sunglasses don't have to be expensive to do the trick, says Jeffers.

"When you're picking out sunglasses, you just want to make sure they are labeled as having 99 to 100 percent UV-A and UV-B protection, and any inexpensive drugstore glasses can usually offer that. You don't need the expensive ones to get protection," he says.

The AAO offers the following additional tips to protect your eyes -- and those of your children -- from the sun:

  • If you spend time on the water, consider getting wrap-around sunglasses that offer better protection.
  • Both adults and children should wear sunglasses and hats. Try to keep kids out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun's ultraviolet rays are strongest.
  • Generally, UV rays are most intense at midday. But you need to protect your eyes whenever you're outside for a prolonged period, even when it's overcast.
  • Reflected sunlight -- light that bounces off water or even snow, for example -- can be the most dangerous type of UV light because it is intensified.
  • Wear sunscreen, but be careful not to get it in your eyes. Flush with clean water or an eyewash if you do. Never use sunscreen on infants younger than 6 months old; it can irritate their skin. But don't fall victim to the popular myth that sunscreen can blind small children if it gets in their eyes. It's just that -- a myth.
  • Your eyes can feel the effects of just a single day in the sun. Similar to a sunburn on your skin, eye-surface burns can be painful, but they are usually temporary.
  • Your eyes can be harmed by UV light sources other than the sun, such as welding lamps or tanning booths. Always wear eye protection when using a welding arc, or a tanning booth.

What To Do

Visit Lighthouse International for more information on protecting your eyes from the sun.

And read more about eye health in these HealthScout stories.

SOURCES: Interviews with John B. Jeffers, M.D., director of emergency services and resident education, Wills Eye Hospital, Philadelphia, Pa.; Katherine Shea, adjunct assistant professor in community and family medicine, Duke University, Durham, N.C., American Academy of Ophthalmology press release
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