More than a cool accessory, sunnies can save your sight

A number of scientific studies indicate that spending long hours in the sun without eye protection can significantly damage your eyes by contributing to a number of eye diseases and growths on the eye, including cancer.

Proper sunglasses are key to protecting your eyes from sun-related damage, and they should be worn anytime you are outdoors including when you are at the beach or in the water. 

Australians have a high rate of skin cancer and melanoma in and around the eye. Many other diseases of the eye are also caused by the sun including:

Cataracts

Studies show there is a relationship between frequent exposure to UVR and premature cataracts. There’s evidence that doubling the total UV-B exposure over time may increase the risk by as much as 60%. A further study found that wearing UV protection from a young age reduces the risk of cataracts by around 25% compared to those who began wearing sunglasses after age 40. Once a cataract has developed, cataract surgery is the only method of preventing vision loss.

Pterygium

This is a fleshy growth over the cornea that occurs with ongoing exposure to sun, wind and sand (thus its nickname, ‘surfer’s eye’). Pterygiums develop over time and may reach the point of requiring surgical removal. 

Eye cancers

Basal cell carcinomas (BCC) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) are malignant tumours of the eyelid. BCCs are responsible for the majority of eyelid cancers and fortunately rarely metastasise. SCCs remain considerably more dangerous. Research has shown that the development of SCCs can be attributed to extensive ongoing sun exposure. Surgical removal is necessary and, in some cases, may need to be aggressive.

Photokeratitis

Just as the skin can be damaged from exposure to UVR, the eye itself can suffer from ‘sunburn’. This is called photokeratitis and represents a superficial yet painful burn of the outmost layer of the eye. Treatment is usually lubricants and rest, however medical treatment may be necessary.

Most people receive a significant amount of sun exposure in their early years, and increasing evidence suggests that a cause of eye damage is through excessive exposure to the suns ultraviolet rays. A study has shown that children who live their childhood in Brisbane are much more likely to develop eye disease than children who grow up in Melbourne. 

What else can you do? 

  • When buying sunnies check for 100 percent UV protection: Make sure your sunglasses block 100 percent of UV-A and UV-B rays. 
  • Educate children from an early age to wear their sunglasses while outside – prevention is better than cure. 
  • Educate parents as sun protection needs to start before children can initiate their own care. 
  • Teach primary school students to wear not only a wide brimmed hat and sunscreen, but also sunglasses to protect their eyes when playing outside. 

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