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  • Winter UV Eye Safety: Prevent Snow Blindness and Other Conditions

    Reviewed By Odalys Mendoza, MD
    Published Jun. 08, 2021

    You probably wear eye protection and sunscreen in the summer. Do you think about it during the winter months as well? In any season, sun exposure may increase your risk for conditions like:

    Getting too much sun can increase your risk for these conditions. But the damage to the front surface of the eye that causes snow blindness is unique because it can happen quickly. You can prevent all these conditions simply by wearing sunglasses and goggles.

    High Altitude Means Higher Risk for Skiers and Snowboarders

    In a study published in Archives of Dermatology, researchers interviewed thousands of skiers and snowboarders at high-altitude ski areas in western North America. The results? Most people took only occasional precautions like wearing hats, sunscreen, and goggles. Why is this troubling?

    These four factors increase a skier's risk for eye damage:

    1. Sun reflecting off snow can be harsh.
    2. UV radiation can be high on cloudy days.
    3. UV exposure increases with elevation.
    4. The cold, dry and windy conditions on the slopes contribute to snow blindness symptoms.

    Man wearing sunglasses at ski resortOf course it's not only winter sports enthusiasts who are at risk. Anyone who lives or works in a snowy climate should take precautions and wear UV protection.

    Snow Blindness Symptoms Are Scary

    Snow blindness is a form of photokeratitis. It is a painful eye condition caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays reflected from ice and snow. Risk is especially high at high elevation: severe cold and dryness can contribute to the condition.

    Like sunburns, you may not notice snow blindness until after you damage your eyes. Snow blindness symptoms can be very alarming and unpleasant. Some symptoms of snow blindness include pain, blurry vision, swelling, and watery eyes.

    Musher became snow blind during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

    A famous case of snow blindness occurred during the 2004 Iditarod. Racer Doug Swingley removed his goggles for a quick look ahead during extreme cold and wind. In a matter of minutes, his vision became extremely blurry. Swingley called Griffith Steiner, MD, a corneal specialist based in Anchorage, for advice. “Based on the severity of his symptoms and the danger of proceeding, I advised him that it was not safe to continue,” said Dr. Steiner. “This was not an easy decision, as Doug was a four-time champion.” The musher left the race for treatment in Anchorage, and his eyes fully recovered.

    Swingley likely had a freezing injury to his corneas made worse by low humidity and severe dryness from cold wind. A recent laser vision correction, which can make dry eye symptoms more likely, made the situation worse.

    With his circumstances, it's hard to say if Swingley could have avoided snow blindness. But for most outdoor enthusiasts, a safe day in the winter sun is almost assured with a good pair of sunglasses or ski goggles.

    Preventing Snow Blindness Is Easy On and Off the Slopes

    You don't have to experience the pain and damage that snow blindness causes. For centuries humans have found clever ways to protect themselves. With today's technology it's easier than ever. Sunglasses or goggles that block at least 99% of UV rays and protect from dry, freezing wind help prevent snow blindness. When you're not skiing or snowboarding, wrap-around sunglasses work well to block sun and wind. When you're skiing or snowboarding, goggles with polycarbonate lenses offer protection from the sun and eye injury as well. They will generally give you better side (peripheral) vision than wrap-around sunglasses. 

    The Inuit's innovative solution to snow blindness

    Even before today's innovative eyewear, people have found ways to stay safe on cold, sunny winter days. Alaskan Inuits carved snow goggles from antlers, bone, hooves or wood to help prevent UV exposure. The goggles featured a narrow slit that limited brightness. They allowed for a full horizontal field of vision but blocked light reflecting vertically off the ice and snow.

    The American Academy of Ophthalmology Recommends Winter Eye Protection

    Prevent long-term eye damage and sudden snow blindness by following the Academy's recommendation. Wear goggles or sunglasses with UV protection when you go outside on winter days.