‘Sunburn in the eyes’ – this is how doctors describe the term snow blindness. This is because an overdose of UV light is not only dangerous for your skin, but the cornea in your eyes can also burn. And if the uppermost corneal layer becomes detached or torn, the nerve endings are exposed, which is very painful (see symptoms).
In winter, the risk of this is high because ice and snow reflect UV light, which results in added indirect radiation. People who like to spend sunny winter days in the mountains expose themselves to an additional risk – the higher the location, the more intense are the rays in the thinner atmosphere.
Apart from snow blindness, the terms arc eye or welder’s flash are also commonly used. Experts speak of actinic keratosis or photokeratitis. But it’s not only in snow that the cornea can be damaged: it can also happen at the beach or when welding without protective glasses. In these cases too, sunglasses or special eye protection in the form of a mask must be worn.
Similar to normal sunburn, the symptoms of snow blindness don't appear immediately, but after about 3 to 12 hours, often in the evening or at night. The following symptoms are typical:
- severe to unbearable pain in both eyes
- watery eyes
- a feeling of sand in the eyes
- red, irritated, itchy eyes
- sensitivity to light
- compulsive twitching, or even eyelid cramp
- vision problems
Be sure to see a doctor
Even though the cornea regenerates itself and symptoms usually subside after one or two days, it's essential that you see an eye doctor, who can then determine how much the cornea has been affected. If the burn is severe, and you don’t receive medical treatment, irreparable damage such as scars may remain which will also limit your vision. Another consequence can be permanently dry eyes. However, there is no danger of going blind, as the term snow blindness suggests.
Alleviating the pain
After visiting the doctor, you can treat the condition yourself at home in a few simple ways:
- Avoid bright light, rest in a darkened room.
- Place a cold damp cloth on your eyes to alleviate the pain.
- Don't rub your eyes.
- Use eye drops or ointments and/or painkillers prescribed by your doctor.
- Eye doctors also treat the cornea with soft bandage contact lenses.
Wear sunglasses at all times
Any more damage to the cornea should be avoided. Prevention is very simple: always wear sunglasses or ski goggles with adequate UV protection. These products are identified by the CE sign.
And, in terms of the frame, make sure that your eyes are also protected from light rays coming from above and from the side. It's also advisable to wear a sun hat. So the darker the glasses, the better the sun protection? In fact, this rule of thumb is not true. Light or transparent lenses can also provide good protection.