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Excessive exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight can burn the cornea of the eye.

When it happens on snow, the condition is called photokeratitis or ‘snow blindness’.
And, as with our skin, eye damage occurs with EVERY over exposure to the sun’s ultra violet (UV) rays.
Snow blindness can be very painful, although the pain usually only lasts a few days.
However, burning of the cornea during childhood causes damage that accumulates over a lifetime. And, at any age snow blindness could lead to common eye conditions like cataracts (clouding of the eyes’ lens), pterygium (growth of a membrane across the eye), and macular degeneration (AMD) later in life.
While it may be tempting to hit the ski fields wearing your everyday sunglasses – especially if they’re fitted with prescription lenses – they are simply not up to the job of protecting your eyes when you’re on the snow.

Sunnies won’t cut it

When it comes to protecting your eyes from the UV radiation reflected off snow, here are some good reasons to put substance ahead of style:
– Snow can reflect as much as 80% of the sun’s rays – much higher than the reflection off sand, water, or cement.
– When you are skiing in mountainous, snow-covered terrain, reflected sunlight hits your eyes from all angles – both directly from the sun and off the snow.
– Mountains mean a higher altitude above sea level. The higher the elevation, the less atmosphere there is to filter out the harmful UV rays.

That’s a wrap!

If you are planning a skiing holiday, invest in glasses that:
– Provide 100% protection against both UV-A and UV-B radiation.
– Fit your face snugly from above your eyebrows to the middle of your cheeks
– Wrap around your face so UV rays and wind can’t reach your eyes from the side.
The best choice is polarised or dark, mirror-coated sunglasses. There’s another bonus: The large lenses in full-coverage glasses better protect your eyes against wind-blown ice or tree branches.
If you have trouble finding sunglasses that offer full coverage front and sides, look for glacier goggles (or glacier sunglasses). They fit like sunglasses, but have plastic or other material on the sides to block out light.
You should be able to source these through your optometrist, who can then fit prescription lenses. Just ensure that your eyewear meets Australian Standard AS1067, which ensures they will block at least 95% of UV radiation.

The signs of snow blindness

Snow blindness is caused by inflammation of the cornea. It feels like sand or grit in your eyes.
Along with pain and discomfort, symptoms of snow blindness may include watering of the eyes, bloodshot eyes, and uncontrollable twitching of the eyelid.
In toddlers not wearing sunglasses, look for excessive blinking or other signs of distress, while older children may complain of eye discomfort, excessive brightness, irritation, dryness, or difficulty blinking – symptoms that can be mistakenly attributed to wind or cold.
Symptoms may appear immediately or be delayed for up to 8-12 hours. Pain and temporary blindness can set in even later, while in extreme cases repeated exposure can result in permanent blindness.

Treating snow blindness

If you experience any of the symptoms of snow blindness you should:
– Get out of the sun and lie down in a darkened room.
– Cover your eyes with a cool compress or dark cloth.
– If you wear contact lenses, remove them.
– Refrain from rubbing your eyes.
If pain persists, seek medical attention. (You may be prescribed eye drops to ease the pain and help the healing process.)
Almost all cases of snow blindness heal spontaneously over a few days. Covering your eyes with eye pads, gauze bandages, or other improvised material that stops light from entering your eyes may speed up the healing process.

Don’t forget the 5 S’s

The sun protection message in Australia has expanded in recent years from Slip! Slop! Slap! to also include Seek (shade)! and Slide (on sunglasses)! The advice is just as relevant for skiers and snowboarders as it is for beachgoers.
Even on a cloudy day, sunscreen should be applied at a rate of 2mg per square centimetre of exposed skin. Properly applied, a sunscreen with an SPF of +15 will protect you from 93% of UVB radiation; while SPF +30 protects against 97% of UVB; and SPF +50 offers protection against 98% of UVB.
SPF 30+ is the recommended sunscreen for white- or fair-skinned people who burn frequently and rarely (or never) tan. For those with light-intermediate, olive, brown, or black skin who tan easily and rarely (if ever) get sunburned, SPF 15+ offers sufficient protection.

All UV damage lasts a lifetime: Potentially fatal melanomas can occur anywhere – even in the eye.
Damage your eyes or your skin and the long-term effects may only become apparent years – even decades – later.

Travelling overseas? Call Travelvax Australia’s telephone advisory service on 1300 360 164 (toll-free from landlines). We provide no-obligation, country-specific advice and you can also make an appointment at your nearest Travelvax clinic to obtain vaccinations, medication to prevent or treat illness, and accessories for your journey.