Question of the Week

May 9, 2005

It's almost summer. The weather is improving, and those in many parts of the country are once again able to be outside without 14 layers of clothing covering every inch of skin. It is difficult to make it through the summer without hearing the importance of keeping skin safe from the sun, but what about other health risks that rise right along with the temperatures?

"While most people know that sunscreen is essential when venturing outdoors to protect their skin from ultraviolet rays, it is crucial to remember that the eyes can be damaged as well. In fact, prolonged exposure to UV rays can result in serious eye damage. Cataracts, the leading cause of blindness in the world, can be caused by UV-A and UV-B rays. According to the 'Vision Problems in the U.S.' report by Prevent Blindness America, there are over 20 million people in America alone that suffer from the disease. UV-A penetrates deep into the eye and may injure the macula, the part of the retina responsible for sight in the center of the field of vision. UV-B is mainly absorbed by the cornea and lens of the eye and can damage these tissues. Photokeratitis, or 'corneal sunburn,' is a result of intense exposure to UV-B. The condition is extremely painful and sufferers can experience vision loss for 1-2 days. Pterygium, a tissue growth that forms on the white of the eye and is also caused by UV exposure, may spread to the cornea without treatment and may eventually require surgery. 'UV rays are harmful to everyone,' said Daniel Garrett, senior vice president of Prevent Blindness America. 'Adults, children, men, women, no matter what your background, you are susceptible to eye damage from the sun if you don't take the necessary precautions.'"

Okay, that sounds really bad. But how many people actually injure their eyes?

"An estimated 2.4 million people in the United States suffer eye injuries every year, and most of them occur during summer. The result: Nearly 1 million Americans have permanent vision impairment due to injury, and more than 75 percent of these people become blind in one eye. ... As you set about your summer activities, doctors urge you to take precautions to make sure your eyes are safe. The most insidious eye injuries can come from the summer's main attraction -- the sun. Ultraviolet rays can cause sunburned corneas, cancer of the eyelid, and increased risk of eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration."

When damage is caused by a baseball or a hockey puck, it is often more obvious (at least to an ophthalmologist) what the immediate and long term effects will be. Much like the effects of the sun on the skin, the damage to the eyes may not be immediately apparent.

"[T]hose diseases won't develop until long after you've sustained an eye injury that you might not even know you have, said New Orleans ophthalmologist Dr. Monica L. Monica. 'You're not aware of the damage that's going on with UV rays until you're much older,' Monica said. She recommends that everyone wear sunglasses that will block ultraviolet light. 'These don't have to be expensive sunglasses,' Monica said. 'Just make sure it says 100-percent UV protection.'"

Even with 100-percent UV protection, sunglasses can only protect if they are blocking all the light that is reaching the eyes. Similarly, if you have contact lenses that offer UV protection, it is important to be aware that:

"Some contact lenses offer extra UV blocking. When wearing them, also wear sunglasses, since these contacts cover only the center part of the eye and can't do anything for uncovered areas. Hats help, too, because they cover the top opening between sunglasses and your face."

Even when the sun is not at it's brightest, doctors still caution:

"It also is important to remember to wear eye protection on overcast days, as clouds do not completely reduce UV levels,' Dr. Davis continued. 'For these reasons, it is
recommended that anyone who even spends a small amount of time outdoors this summer use proper eye protection to reduce the risk of cataracts and other eye damage.'"

All that said, wearing traditional sun glasses may not always be the best way to protect your eyes.

"Many [injuries] could have been prevented if the athletes had been wearing protective eyewear, such as safety goggles with polycarbonate lenses. Ski goggles are a must, and so are face shields (either 'cages' or clear polycarbonate shields) for baseball or softball catchers, and hockey, football and paintball players. Kids don't always like to wear safety eyewear, but parents and coaches should insist. ... Never use 'dress' eyewear during sports. Glasses made for street or office wear are not made to the same standard as safety eyewear and will probably not hold up under impact. Not only could they shatter or bend, but pieces of the lens or frame can cause eye or face injury.

Questions of the Week:
For what activities, sports, and/or in what situations do you need to take precautions to keep your eyes safe? How can you participate in the activities you enjoy, have fun, and still take care of your eyes? How do the precautions vary by sport? by situation? by activity? How is this different if your activities are inside verses outside?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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