How to Protect Your Eyes from a Sunburn and Snow Blindness

Snow dusted treetops, white-capped peaks, and fresh powder lure many of us to the mountains from late fall through the early spring. As we move full-steam ahead into long weekends spent adventuring in the snow, don’t neglect to properly shield your eyes from the snow’s highly reflective surface. Sunburned eyes or snow blindness is one of the worst ways to end a weekend of skiing or snowboarding.

Here’s what you need to know to fully enjoy the snowpack without harming your eyes:

What is snow blindness and what causes it?

Let’s first define snow blindness (also referred to as photokeratitis) and what causes it. When you spend an extended period of time outside in the snow, you can sunburn your cornea from overexposure to the sun’s UV rays. The sunburn is painful and causes temporary vision loss. It most often occurs when you’ve spent too much time in the snow but can also occur when out on the water or on white sand, both highly reflective surfaces.

Snow, however, is especially reflective—it reflects up to 80 percent of UV radiation. Snow also typically occurs at high altitudes where the sun’s rays are stronger. Compared to spending time outdoors at lower elevations in the summertime, the risk of sunburned eyes can as much as double in the winter.

These are the classic snow blindness symptoms, courtesy of All About Vision:

  • Eye pain
  • Burning eyes
  • Red eyes
  • A gritty feeling or sensation that something is “in” the eye
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Watery eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Swollen eyes and/or eyelids
  • Headaches
  • Glare and halos around lights

Just like a sunburn on your skin, you typically won’t feel a sunburn on your eyes until several hours after the exposure. The sunburn will usually heal within 24 to 48 hours and your vision will return to normal. If the symptoms last longer than 48 hours or get worse after 24 hours, visit your eye doctor immediately.

(Note that snow blindness doesn’t actually cause you to go blind, but it can significantly impair your vision for an extended period of time.)

If you experience snow blindness, don’t rub your eyes and try to stay indoors and out of direct sun as much of possible or wear sunglasses. Those who wear contacts should remove their contact lenses until the symptoms clear up. You can relieve some of the symptoms with artificial tears (preservative-free formulas are best) or place a cool, damp washcloth over your eyes for temporary relief.

How to prevent snow blindness

You’ve probably already guessed how to prevent sunburning your corneas. Those big reflective goggles people wear on the slopes serve as more than just an outdoorsy fashion statement. Protecting your eyes from a sunburn is really as simple as wearing high-quality, UV-protected sunglasses or goggles.

Make sure your sunglasses block 100% of UV rays and are a wraparound style to prevent light on your periphery from getting in. This style is also great for any outdoor sport — the wrap fit keeps the sunglasses firmly in place so you can ski, snowboard, or climb mountains without worrying about losing your shades.

If you wear prescription glasses during outdoor activities, it may be worth looking into contact lenses. You can wear goggles over your glasses, but this is cumbersome and causes your glasses to fog up. Contact lenses provide the best clarity of vision and allow you to easily switch between goggles or wraparound sunglasses, depending on your outdoor activity.

The risk of snow blindness shouldn’t prevent you from fully enjoying your time in the snow this winter season. Just make sure you invest in a high-quality pair of sunglasses and wear them even on overcast days. Even if you don’t plan on spending time in the snow, regularly wearing UV-protected sunglasses can help prevent eye diseases like macular degeneration and cataracts.

Want more information on protecting your vision? Check out these related posts:

Are Your Sunglasses Providing Enough UV Protection?
Why One Eyewear Prescription is Never Enough
Common Eye Emergencies and How to Protect Your Vision
Your Guide to Nutrition for Healthy Eyes

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