Because we live in a coastal area, with lots of sunny days, sun protection is of utmost importance for us here in the Lowcountry.
From front to back of the eye, the sun and UV exposure can damage a structure in just about every level of the eye.
Starting in the front of the eye, extreme sun exposure (for example, tanning without sunglasses) can cause a condition called Ultraviolet Keratitis.
This is damage to the cornea from the sun and can cause a significant amount of discomfort and blurred vision. It is reversible and can be treated.
A more common condition we see from UV exposure to the front of the eye is called a “pinguecula.”
A pinguecula is a collection of raised tissue which forms on the front of the eye over the white portion. It is a benign growth which is very commonly seen after years of chronic sun exposure.
Pingueculae cause issues only if they dry out and become inflamed. Because they are raised from the eye slightly, they are prone to dry out as the eyelid does not blink over it evenly.
A pinguecula can progress into a pterygium if it grows onto the cornea. A pterygium is an opaque growth over what should be a transparent cornea which will have to be surgically removed if it progresses in front of the pupil.
Proceeding back in the eye, UV exposure also can affect cataract formation and progression.
UV exposure is not the sole factor in causing cataracts, however. Your number of birthdays truly is one of the largest influencers in cataract formation.
Arriving at the back of the eye, the sun can cause damage to the retina, specifically the center focal point called the macula.
Sun gazing can lead to a condition called solar retinopathy. Reports show that even as little as 20 seconds of sun gazing can lead to a retinal burn in the macula. This condition results in blurred central vision or a dark spot in the central vision which is not reversible.
Lastly, another retinal and macular condition associated with chronic UV exposure is Age Related Macular Degeneration, or AMD. Like cataracts, one of the other big factors in this condition is age.
Studies have shown, however, that those with macular degeneration often have a history of greater UV exposure throughout their lifetime.
A majority of those living here in the Lowcountry are fairly responsible about sun protection.
Many of us moved here for the wonderful climate, love of the beach, golfing, etc., but don’t forget how difficult it can be to enjoy many of your daily activities without good eyesight.
Protect those peepers!
Caroline Bundrick, O.D. is an optometrist practicing at Darling Eye Center, with offices in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.