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What are Sunburned Eyes?

Angie Garcia

Written By:

Angie Garcia

Updated: 28 February 2024 •  
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Have you ever spent a day in the sun without wearing sunglasses, only to later find your eyes red, sore, and sensitive to light?
 
If so, you may have experienced sunburned eyes. This painful condition, photokeratitis or ultraviolet keratitis, can affect anyone outdoors without proper eye protection.
 
Also known as photokeratitis or ultraviolet keratitis, sunburned eyes can cause temporary vision loss. You may also feel some discomfort and sensitivity to light.
 
Let’s look at what causes sunburned eyes, how to prevent it, and what to do if you have it.
 

What are the symptoms of sunburned eyes?

redness inflammation sunburned eyes symptoms

Prolonged exposure to the sun can cause your eyes to redness and inflammation. Source: U.S. News

 
Sunburned eyes can be a real pain—literally! One of the most common symptoms of this condition is redness, which can make your eyes look like they’ve been crying for hours.
 
You might find that your eyes are watering more than usual as they try to flush out the UV radiation causing the problem. But the discomfort doesn’t stop there. Sunburned eyes can also be quite painful, with many describing it as a sensation compared to having sand in your eyes.
 
With sunburned eyes, you may also feel more light-sensitive than usual.
 
sunburned eyes disturbs daily routine

Vision loss caused by sunburned eyes can be severe enough to interfere with daily activities.

 
Even indoor lighting or the glare from a computer screen can be painful when your eyes are sunburned. However, the most concerning symptom of sunburned eyes is temporary vision loss. This symptom can occur when the cornea—the transparent, outermost layer of the eye—becomes swollen and distorted.
 
So why does UV radiation cause all these problems? The answer lies in the way that light interacts with the cells of the eye. Prolonged exposure to UV radiation can damage the cells of the cornea, leading to inflammation and other symptoms of sunburned eyes.
 
And unfortunately, this damage is cumulative—every time you expose your eyes to UV radiation without protection, you’re increasing your risk of developing this painful condition.
 

How to best prevent sunburned eyes

The best way to avoid the pain and discomfort of sunburned eyes is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
 
Luckily, you can take a few simple steps to protect your eyes from UV radiation and reduce your risk of developing this painful condition. First and foremost, invest in a good pair of sunglasses or clip-ons that block 100% of UV radiation.
 
invest in sunglasses as prevention

Make sure to research and choose a pair that offers adequate coverage.

 
When it comes to UV protection, not all sunglasses are created equal. Look for sunglasses labeled “UV 400” or “100% UV protection” to ensure they provide the highest protection level possible.
 
But how do you know if your sunglasses are doing their job?
 
One way to test the UV-blocking effectiveness of your sunglasses is to use a UV light meter. This small device measures the amount of UV radiation that penetrates through your sunglasses. A UV light meter can determine the effectiveness of your sunglasses’ UV-blocking capabilities.
 
Another easy way to tell if your sunglasses provide adequate protection is to check for a label that indicates compliance with ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards for UV protection. In addition to wearing sunglasses, it’s also a good idea to wear a hat with a brim or visor to further shade your eyes from the sun.
 
And, of course, the best way to prevent sunburned eyes is to limit your exposure to sunlight, especially during peak UV hours (typically between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
 
transition lenses protects from uv rays

Transition lenses provide continuous protection against harmful UV rays.

 
Transition or photochromic lenses are a convenient option for preventing sunburned eyes. They darken automatically in response to sunlight and UV rays. These lenses contain photochromic molecules that UV light activates, causing the lenses to darken and protect the eyes from harmful UV radiation.
 
Transition lenses effectively prevent sunburned eyes, as they reduce the amount of UV light entering the eyes. Plus, they eliminate the need for multiple glasses or constantly switch between prescription and sunglasses.
 
These simple measures can help safeguard your eyes against the harmful effects of UV radiation and lower your chances of developing sunburned eyes.
 

Consultation and treatment of sunburned eyes

modern doctors uses ophthalmoscope

Your eye doctor can help determine the proper treatment for sunburned eyes.

 
If you are experiencing prolonged symptoms of sunburned eyes, seeking medical attention promptly to minimize the risk of long-term damage to your vision is essential.
 
Sunburned eyes will usually heal within a few days to a week. However, you can do a few things to ease discomfort and speed healing. One of the essential measures to maintain your eye health is to give your eyes a break and limit their exposure to bright light.
 
This means taking a break from activities that require a lot of visual concentration, like reading or working on a computer, and wearing sunglasses indoors to reduce the amount of light that reaches your eyes. Another critical factor for treating sunburned eyes is using eye drops to reduce inflammation and soothe discomfort.
 
consult experts for best eye drops

Consult your eye doctor or pharmacist for the best eye drops for sunburned eyes.

 
Several eye drops can treat sunburned eyes, including lubricating and anti-inflammatory drops. Lubricating drops help moisturize the eyes and reduce dryness, while anti-inflammatory drops can help to reduce swelling and pain.
 
Staying hydrated by consuming ample amounts of water and reducing your alcohol and caffeine intake can aid in combating dehydration, which can worsen the symptoms of sunburned eyes.
 
In severe cases, your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce inflammation and prevent infection.
 
This is more likely necessary if you are experiencing vision loss or your symptoms have not improved after a few days of at-home treatment.
 

Protecting your eyes from the sun

use sunglasses outdoors as protection

Taking essential precautions, such as wearing sunglasses outdoors, can help prevent sunburned eyes.

 
Sunburned eyes can be painful and uncomfortable, leading to temporary vision loss and other long-term complications. Symptoms can include redness, pain, and sensitivity to light – typically from exposure to UV radiation from the sun.
 
Shielding your eyes from the sun’s harmful UV rays is essential in preventing this condition. This can include wearing sunglasses that block 100% of UV radiation, wearing a hat with a brim or visor, and avoiding prolonged exposure to sunlight during peak UV hours. If you experience symptoms of sunburned eyes, seeking medical attention is crucial to minimizing the risk of long-term damage to your vision.
 
By taking simple steps to protect your eyes from the sun, you can reduce your risk of developing sunburned eyes and other eye conditions associated with UV exposure. So next time you head out into the sun, grab a pair of UV-blocking sunglasses and a hat—your eyes will thank you!

Angie Garcia

Written by:

Angie Garcia

Angie is a Manila-based writer who specializes in wellness and lifestyle topics. She likes trying out new workouts and drinking coffee when not writing.