Can your eyes get sunburned? 10 answers to your biggest summer eye care questions

Woman blocking the sun with her hand

Summer is in full swing, which means many of us are spending more time outdoors enjoying the warm weather. While you may be eager to soak up the sun while you can, remember that too much sun exposure can be harmful to your body. We already know to use sunscreen to protect our skin, but what about our eyes?

Can your eyes get sunburned?

Yes, eyes can be ‘sunburned’ in a condition called photokeratitis. This commonly leads to urgent medical visits because of severe eye pain and an abrupt onset of symptoms. Luckily, it is typically self-limiting and resolves without permanent blindness, but any significant eye problem should always be evaluated by an eye doctor to properly diagnose and treat the issue.

Do you still need to wear sunglasses even if it’s cloudy outside?

You absolutely should still wear sunglasses when it's cloudy outside. Clouds do not completely block the sun’s rays, so you are still at risk for UV exposure and sunburns. Although sunlight is usually most intense at mid-day, your eyes are especially vulnerable to harmful UV light at dawn and dusk because of the direct angle of incoming light; it is important to wear sunglasses as much as possible, no matter the time of day or weather. Note that water, sand and snow can reflect sunlight back towards your eyes as well, so sunglasses will protect your eyes even if you are wearing a hat. Also, the higher your altitude, the more exposed you are to UV light.

Do contact lenses provide protection against UV rays?

Several brands of contact lenses are built with UV protection. Keep in mind, however, that contact lenses only cover the center of the eye and not the surrounding areas, such as the conjunctiva or eyelids. It is still best to wear sunglasses. Depending on your environment, wearing contact lenses for too long outdoors may irritate your eyes more than usual, especially if you are in a dry, hot and/or windy area.

What is the standard UV protection to look for when buying sunglasses?

The sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface is made up of two types of harmful rays: UV-A and UV-B. You should choose sunglasses that provide 100% protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. You may also see the designation UV 400, which blocks light under 400 nanometers (including UVA and UVB). If you spend a lot of time on the water, polarized sunglasses may help reduce glare and reflections. Make sure to look for polarized lenses that provide maximum UV protection.

Can long-term exposure to the sun cause cataracts?

Yes, long-term sun exposure can cause cataracts. The most common eye problems related to sun exposure are cataracts and macular degeneration. While cataracts can be removed with surgery, macular degeneration is permanent and often quite debilitating. In addition, the skin around the eye is susceptible to skin cancer, so it is important to wear sun protection whenever possible. In contrast, even brief sungazing can cause permanent vision impairment, so never look directly at the sun.

Why is it important to wear goggles in the pool?

Goggles not only allow you to see better underwater, they also protect the eyes from chlorine and other chemicals in the water that may be irritating. If you are a contact lens wearer, please discard any contact lenses after swimming activities because lenses may harbor bacteria that increase your risk for severe eye infections.

What are symptoms of eye allergies and what is the best way to treat them?

Itching, swelling, redness, irritation, tearing, and blurry vision are all symptoms of eye allergies. If you know you have seasonal eye allergies and have been examined before, you can use over-the-counter, preservative-free, artificial tear eye drops found at most drug stores. Cool compresses are helpful to reduce swelling and the urge to itch. Some over-the-counter allergy medications exist, but you should always be examined by a professional first to determine the best way to treat your allergies.

Should you be wearing protective eyewear when doing outdoor work like mowing the lawn?

Always consider protective eyewear when you are working in an environment that puts you at risk for accidents or projectiles. Search for wrap-around eyewear that protects the eyes from the sides as well.

Is it necessary to protect your eyes when playing sports like baseball or basketball?

I recommend protective eyewear for high-risk sports because of the potential for sight-threatening injuries or even concussions. Contact sports such as basketball are especially prone to eye injuries because of the nature of body movements.

Should my children get their eyes checked before they go back to school in the fall?

It's a good idea to get children's eyes checked before starting school, regardless of state requirements. In Illinois, children are required to have an eye exam prior to their first year of school to ensure they have the vision they need to succeed in the classroom. Pediatric eye exams not only assess visual acuity (sharpness of vision), but also evaluate binocular vision skills and eye health to make sure your child is able to manage the increasing visual demands of each academic year.

Steven Quan

Steven Quan, OD

Steven Quan, OD, is an optometrist providing care to patients at our Hyde Park and Orland Park locations.

Learn more about Dr. Quan