The effects of eye degeneration caused by the sun are like putting money into a piggy bank.
“It might take years to fill, but once it is, you’ll cash in on all the problems,” says Dr. Mark Lee, a Las Vegas-based optometrist at Vision Source and a member of the Nevada Optometric Association.
Now that summer is in full swing with the sun unleashing its force, people are at risk of accumulating eye damage and diseases caused by ultraviolet rays.
Optometrists recommend people purchase sunglasses to protect their eyes — and their future vision — from potential problems caused by ultraviolet radiation.
According to the Vision Council’s 2014 Sun Protection Survey, Las Vegas ranks 13 out of 58 cities with high ultraviolet index levels.
Last year, Las Vegas had high-risk ultraviolet levels on 135 days — 37 percent of the time, according to the report.
Each year, the organization surveys 10,000 adults nationwide to determine people’s knowledge on eye care and sunglasses, according to Lauren Musiol of the Vision Council.
For many people, the issues associated with vision protection are “out of sight, out of mind,” Lee says. “They don’t see or feel the problem and don’t realize the effects are gradual.”
Long-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation can lead to many troubles later.
For one, it can increase the risk factor for cataracts, which is the clouding of the eye lens over time.
Another problem that can manifest is called a pterygium, which is a noncancerous growth on the conjunctiva — the thin, transparent membrane covering the white of the eye. “It’s usually more cosmetic,” Lee says.
And of course, ultraviolet radiation can also cause different forms of cancer on and around the eye.
“This is one of the bigger problems,” Lee says. “Melanoma is the most frequent.”
All the problems can lead to decreased vision.
The Vision Council’s survey indicates 49 percent of U.S. adults didn’t know ultraviolet exposure increased the likelihood of cataracts and 43 percent didn’t know it could cause cancer in the eye or on the eyelid.
These issues won’t usually materialize in people until they’re in their 60s or 70s, Lee says.
“But I have seen 20-year-olds with pterygium,” he says. “Most of the damage you’re doing now isn’t showing up for another 20 years.”
There are problems caused by the sun that can manifest immediately.
“They can be pretty painful and brutal,” Lee says.
One problem is a sunburn on the eye — known as photokeratitis.
“Imagine what you feel having a sunburn, but on the eye,” says Dr. Fraser Horn, an associate dean of the college of optometry at Pacific University and a member of the American Optometric Association. “This is what Anderson Cooper had a year ago. It’s very painful and right on the front of the eye.”
According to the Vision Council, 36 percent of people didn’t know they could get a sunburn on the eye.
It’s not just on the eye, but also right around the eye or on the eyelid people also need to be aware of.
“You can’t really put sunscreen on it,” Lee says.
Sunburns can be treated, usually with artificial tears. And doctors can prescribe antibiotics to keep the eye from becoming infected while it heals.
In some cases, it is treated with a type of bandage contact. Like healing skin, the eye will start to peel as the sunburn fades. “Usually in 48 hours,” Lee says.
In places closer to the equator or, like Las Vegas, with higher ultraviolet index levels, Lee says, people are more likely to have burns.
But even if it seems too cloudy to wear sunglasses, people are still exposing their eyes to ultraviolet radiation, Horn says.
Lee adds that these burns can also be caused by the reflection off water or snow, sometimes called snow blindness. He has even had a few cases of welders who forgot to wear protective glasses who have gotten burns on the eye.
The solution: Wear sunglasses.
According to the study, 27 percent of adults rarely or never wear sunglasses outside.
Lee doesn’t think it’s opposition to wearing them, but more so people forget to put them on.
“Sometimes they don’t have a good pair or they break,” he says.
When celebrities or athletes wear them, the public will follow suit, Horn says.
“When ‘Men in Black’ came out, for instance, there was a huge surge for Ray-Ban (sunglasses),” he says.
The American Optometric Association recommends when looking at fashionable purchases for sunglasses, make sure they are also functional.
Customers should look to ensure each pair has ultraviolet protection.
“Not all have it,” Horn said.
According to the survey, 35 percent didn’t know if their sunglasses provided ultraviolet protection and 10 percent said glasses didn’t filter rays out.
Horn said some sunglasses offer blue-light protection. There is a concern that too much blue light can cause damage to the retina.
“When you think of the visible spectrum — red, yellow, green — blue light has more energy,” he says. “There is some research that suggest it causes more damage.
“Sunglasses companies are either being proactive (by offering that protection) or being really good at marketing. It just depends on how you look at it.”
Some contact lenses have built-in ultraviolet protection.
“Certain companies offer this,” Horn says. “But that doesn’t protect around your eyes.”
People should get sunglasses that wrap around the head a little to protect the side of the eye.
“Say you’re driving, and the sun is on the left,” Horn says. “You can potentially get a sunburn.”
Sunglasses don’t have to be expensive, Horn says. “You do get what you pay for, but you can still have a pair of sunglasses for a reasonable price.”
Parents shouldn’t forget to protect their children’s eyes, Horn says. “They have to go their whole life facing the effects of UV rays.”
The Vision Council’s survey indicated 48 percent of parents have their children wear sunglasses.
Children receive three times the annual dose of radiation that adults do and are more vulnerable to damage because they have larger pupils and clearer lenses, according to the study.
Throughout the curriculum Horn teaches, the importance of talking to future patients about sunglasses is emphasized to his optometry students.
“Describing the effects of UV on the eyes is learned throughout their education,” Horn says. “They learn protecting the eyes throughout your life is huge.”
But it is never too late for everyone else to learn those lessons.
“It’s similar to wearing sunblock,” he says. “You realize you haven’t been wearing it, and then you get concerned. Now is always a good time to start.”
Contact reporter Michael Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5201. Find him on Twitter: @mjlyle.