Here’s What To Do If You Accidentally Looked At UV Light
Ultraviolet or UV light is everywhere. And there are certain situations which can put you at risk of accidentally exposing your eyes to UV light. Large amounts of UV light can cause you to develop something called photokeratitis (or also known as sunburned eyes). So what do you do about this?
You won’t have immediate symptoms on your eyes if you accidentally looked at UV light. But hours later, you can develop pain and blurry vision. There is no immediate fix, these symptoms will have to heal up over time. But in the meantime, you can start treatments such as artificial tears to improve comfort and healing.
Ideally it is best to block UV light and prevent sunburned eyes in the first place. Or simply just know how to avoid it in the first place. So where are you going to be at risk for UV light exposure?
Where Are You Exposed to UV Light
The number one source of UV light is the sun. By not protecting your eyes from the sun, you can develop sunburned eyes (in the same way you can develop a sunburn on your skin by not protecting your skin).
While the sun provides a huge burst of UV radiation, not every locale is going to be at the same risk.
Sunny days in snowy climates have a high risk of UV light exposure. This is so common that it even has its own name: snow blindness. Snow is a great reflector of light, and this includes UV light. Unprotected eyes on sunny days in the snow can quickly lead to sunburned eyes. In addition, if you are at a high altitude, such as on a mountain skiing or mountaineering, the altitude and reduced atmosphere makes UV light even more potent!
But there are also classic artificial sources of UV light to know about:
- Welder’s can be exposed to high amounts of UV light. This also has its own name: welder’s flash or arc eye. The lights from welding have an increased intensity of light and UV light. Thus, welder’s must wear eye protection in order to protect their eyes.
- Working on your tan in a tanning salon or with a sun lamp? You are getting excess UV light. A tan is actually your skin trying to protect itself from excess UV light.
- Ultraviolet light also comes from lamps designed to kill germs and also from certain damaged lights (commonly found in school gymnasiums).
If you are exposed to any of these situations, you can be exposed to high amounts of UV light.
Why is UV light a concern?
Light exists in all different wavelengths. Some of these wavelengths we can actually see - this is what makes up visible light. But some of these wavelengths are outside of the range of what we can see. An example is radio waves which are long. And on the other side of the spectrum you have x-rays and ultraviolet radiation which are short wavelengths of light that we can't see.
Note: Ultraviolet light is further broken down based upon how short the wavelength is. UVA is the longest, UVC is the shortest with UVB in the middle. In fact, from the sun, our atmosphere absorbs all UVC light and most of UVB light allowing mostly UVA to pass through and reach us.
Effect Of UV Light On The Eye
Ultraviolet light can be absorbed by our eyes. The biggest short-term issue with UV light is that it can cause damage to the cornea. This parallels quite well with how UV light can damage skin.
The cornea is a very sensitive structure - in fact, one of the most sensitive structures in the body. But covering the cornea is a thin layer of cells called epithelium. These cells serve as the "skin" of the cornea and prevent you from having pain or discomfort from the cornea. If you have ever had a scratch on the eye, you already know firsthand that the cornea can be very painful if this epithelium isn't fully intact.
This epithelium will absorb UV light. This UV light will damage these epithelium cells and cause them to die. Fortunately we are constantly producing new epithelial cells and these will replace those damaged ones. However, in the meantime, these damaged epithelial cells will leave small gaps where the cornea isn't fully covered and protected. This will cause you to have pain and discomfort.
What To Do After UV Light Exposure
If you accidentally looked at UV light, you won't actually develop symptoms immediately. It will actually take a few hours for the damage from UV light to take affect (similar to how a sunburn on the skin takes hours to develop as well). Thus, you won't know right away if you've had enough UV exposure to cause significant damage.
But if you have, you may develop:
- Light sensitivity
- Blurred vision
- Watering of the eyes
These are all symptoms of damaged epithelium on your cornea.
There is nothing that will make a sunburned cornea go away. Time is the only solution. The cornea will heal up with time. For minor exposures, it can resolve in about a day, for a severe exposure to UV light, it can take longer to resolve.
But there are things you can do to help encourage healing as well as make the eye feel more comfortable.
When the cornea becomes damaged from UV light, it will send signals to your immune system which will cause extra inflammation. This inflammation will feel irritable and can make it take a little longer for the eye to heal up.
- Using a cool compresses or a cool washcloth over the eyes can help limit the build-up of this inflammation and make the eyes feel more comfortable.
- Taking a NSAID medication such as ibuprofen can also help the eyes feel more comfortable.
- If you wear contact lenses, take out them out and wear glasses instead for the short term. Contact lenses can contribute to irritation and inflammation of your eye.
But one important way to encourage the healing is to use preservative free artificial tears. Artificial tears help make the cornea as healthy as possible. Keeping the cornea healthy encourages it to rebuild and regrow. Using preservative free artificial tears 6 to 8 times a day help the eye heal quicker.
If you have bad or severe symptoms, you should see a doctor. If things aren't getting any better, you should also see a doctor. An eye exam is important to make sure nothing else serious, such as an infection, develops on your eyes.
Lastly, while this won't help you right now, you can and should take steps to prevent this from happening in the future. This means protecting your eyes from UV light.
When you are outdoors, you will want to wear sunglasses or snow goggles with UV light protection. This means they are rated UV400 or higher and / or block 99 to 100% of all UVA and UVB light. Look for this distinction next time you buy sunglasses.
If you are a welder, make sure you use ANSI approved welding masks. These will be designed to block all the UV light you are exposed to while welding.
While you can prevent exposure to UV light, sometimes you can get caught off guard and get sunburned eyes. Fortunately, the damage from UV light will heal up, it just takes a few days. There are a few ways you can help treat the eyes to allow them to be more comfortable and help encourage faster healing. But don't forget to protect your eyes next time!
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