As the autumn trees turn crimson and gold, the days grow cooler, and we swap swimsuits for sweaters, it’s easy to forget about sunglasses, in particular, and eye health in general. But the change of season brings its own eye-care challenges, particularly for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you’re shredding the slopes or just sledding down your driveway, protecting your vision will help you have a wonderful winter.
Don’t be fooled: Though the sun may feel less intense than during the summer, that doesn’t mean you don’t need eye protection. In the winter months, the sun sits lower in the sky and at a different angle, which may expose you to more ultraviolet light and glare. The risk can be just as significant on gray, overcast days as on clear, sunny ones.
Skiers, snowboarders, and other winter-sports lovers should pay particular attention to their eyes, as snow reflects more ultraviolet radiation than any other surface. “People forget the sun is just as bright glinting off snow as it is off the ocean and beach,” says ophthalmologist Anne R. Sumers, M.D. In addition, the higher you are above sea level, the less radiation is filtered. Because of snow’s reflective nature, up to 85 percent of the sun’s UV rays may be reflected upward. UV light can contribute to cataract formation and retina problems later in life. In fact, the glare of the winter sun is so powerful, it can actually burn your eyes.
Snow blindness, or photokeratitis, a condition comparable to a sunburn, is caused by excessive exposure of the cornea to ultraviolet light. A corneal burn may occur within an hour, although symptoms may not appear for six to 12 hours. They include excessive tearing, redness, swollen eyelids, pain when looking at light, headache, a gritty sensation, and blurred vision. Treatment may include applying an antibiotic ointment to the affected areas.
Though the cornea will usually heal with time, the best way to protect your sight is to avoid excessive UV exposure by wearing sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of all UV light – or better yet, ski goggles. Ski goggles are great for many types of outdoor activities since they not only block the sunlight, but also prevent debris and snow from blowing into the eyes. Appropriate protection should also be worn when shoveling snow, putting up or taking down holiday decorations, or running errands – basically, any activity that takes you outdoors. (And remember the mantra: Protect your eyes, even in gray skies.)
The sun is not the only risk to our eyes during the winter. Cool air can dry the mucous membrane lining of the nose and eyes. “Winter’s harsh weather can make it the furthest thing from a wonderland when your eyes are consistently dry and irritated, especially for those who wear contact lenses,” says Dr. Craig Wax on his Web site, Health Is Number One. Eye drops can help relieve the stinging, itchiness, and redness caused by dry air, and drinking plenty of water will replenish fluid lost after a long day on the slopes or in the yard. Contact lens users may want to consider wearing prescription sunglasses while outdoors.
Another way to combat old man winter is to bundle up, just like Mother said. Corneal specialist Marguerite McDonald suggests wearing a brimmed hat, wraparound sunglasses, and a hooded jacket or coat. “This will help block the swirling, cold wind from the eyes and prevent the tear film covering the eyes from evaporating.”
Dry eyes can be a problem indoors, as well. Heat used during the winter months, especially forced air heating, tends to deplete the air of moisture, irritating eyes. Discomfort can quickly become damaging when you rub your aching eyes so vigorously that you scratch them. Again, eye drops such as artificial tears are easily purchased at your local drug store, and using them a few times a day often solves the problem. Placing humidifiers throughout the house is another way to find relief.
Whatever the weather, good eye health is always in season.