You probably don’t need an expert to tell you that getting outside and staying active during winter are important for maintaining good health. However, you might not be aware that outdoor winter activities come with significant risks to your vision. Ultra violet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause serious eye damage, and snow significantly increases the amount of UV radiation our eyes are exposed to. Despite this, a surprising number of people fail to wear protective eyewear while outdoors during the winter months.
Though we may tend to think less about UV related risks during cold and windy weather, these conditions do not affect the levels of UV radiation our eyes are exposed to. Even clouds, which block much of the sun’s visible light during the winter, let most of its invisible UV light through. When snow covers the ground, exposure can nearly double with up to 80% of the sun’s UV light being reflected back up from the snow. And since UV exposure is cumulative, whether UV light is absorbed by the eye over one long continuous period or several short periods, serious damage can occur.
Long-term conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration, pingueculae (small yellowish bumps on the white of the eye), and pterygium (opaque growth over the surface of the cornea) are all directly related to UV exposure. Resulting symptoms, including vision degradation and discomfort, are typically only noticed once the condition is advanced, making effective treatment difficult or even impossible in some cases. Other more short-term issues caused by UV exposure include photokeratitis, which is essentially a sunburn of the cornea. Although photokeratitis is more treatable than long-term conditions, its symptoms are painful and can also include blurred vision.
Edmonton optometrist Dr. Scott Lopetinsky witnesses UV related eye damage on a regular basis. “One thing I notice all the time,” he says, “is that wearing UV blocking eyewear during the winter is one of the most overlooked measures for eye protection.” He also notes that while adults tend to wear sunglasses more often than kids, “up to 70% of UV damage to your eyes occurs before the age of 18.” This is partly due to the fact that children tend to spend more time outside than adults, but also because the crystalline lenses in their eyes are less effective at filtering out UV light. Most people already know how important sunscreen is. Protective eyewear, according to Dr. Lopetinsky, is just as important.
When looking for eyewear that offers adequate protection, it’s important to consider both the properties of the lens and how they fit. Having lenses that block 100% of UVA and UVB light is the most important requirement, but in order for the lenses to be effective, a proper fit is needed. Dr. Lopetinsky recommends finding glasses that wrap around the wearer’s face. Eye wear such as clip-on lenses, non-tinted prescription glasses, and UV blocking contact lenses do offer some protection, but unfiltered UV light can still get in around the perimeter of the lenses, especially during winter when light is being reflected up from the snow. For those wearing prescription glasses, sunglasses that fit over top of prescription glasses provide the best protection. Polarized lenses can reduce vision impairment by cutting down on horizontal glare—a useful feature when biking or cross-country skiing. And for activities where impact is a risk, polycarbonate lenses are highly resilient, reducing chances of eye injury in the event of an impact. Whatever your go-to outdoor winter activity, the right protective eyewear can allow you to stay active safely and comfortably. Patrycia Rzechowka, a patient of Dr. Lopetinsky, knows this first hand.
Shortly after taking part in the 2016 Fatbikes for MS fundraiser, Patrycia noticed that her face had been sunburned and felt some discomfort in her eyes. In a subsequent appointment with Dr. Lopetinsky, Patrycia inquired about eye protection and received some valuable recommendations. As an MS patient herself, Patrycia has already sustained some MS related vision degradation, so preventing any additional degradation is extremely important to her. Equipped with proper eyewear, Patrycia says that she feels much better about participating in this year’s upcoming fundraiser.
Protecting your eyes from UV light during the winter is always a worthwhile measure. This is especially true for children, who are more at risk than adults. If you want to ensure that you have the best possible protection for your eyes, consult an optometrist—they’re always willing to help.
Don’t have an optometrist? Check out www.optometrists.ab.ca/find-an-optometrist. Be sure to book your annual eye exam. Children’s eye exams are covered by Alberta Health until their 19th birthday, as are adults 65 plus.
Submitted by the Alberta Association of Optometrists