Despite the name, snow blindness can happen even without the snow. The medical term for this condition is photokeratitis and it occurs when your eyes are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays, either from the sun or from a man-made source. The UV rays damage the eyes, often on a temporary basis, and cause pain and other symptoms.

Snow blindness is a particular form of photokeratitis that happens when the ultraviolet rays are reflected off ice or snow. Photokeratitis can also occur if the UV rays are reflected off water or sand, or if you stare the sun or watch a solar eclipse without wearing eye protection. If can even happen without sunlight when using a tanning bed or sun lamp without eye protection.

The danger with snow blindness is that you may not know you are irritating your eyes until after the damage has been done. The presence of UV rays does not cause an immediate reaction to the eyes but is more of a cumulative effect with prolonged exposure.

However, the symptoms of snow blindness are obvious and include: eye pain, blurry vision, tearing, swelling, sensitivity to light and sometimes temporary loss of vision. The severity of symptoms you may experience depends upon the length of time your eyes were exposed to the UV rays.

What Exactly Happens?
Think of snow blindness as having sunburn on your eyes. The UV rays affect the cornea, which is the thin, clear layer at the front of the eye. The conjunctiva, the cell layer inside the eyelids and the whites of the eyes are also very sensitive to prolonged exposure to these rays.

You probably already know what you skin feels like with sunburn. Now you can get a clearer picture of snow blindness when you understand the power of UV rays to burn these sensitive areas of the eyes.

How is it Treated?
If there is not too much damage, photokeratitis will heal by itself. Treatment is primarily designed to ease the pain and to prevent the eyes from further exposure to the UV rays. Pain relievers, either over-the-counter or prescribed by an eye doctor, may be taken. Eye drop antibiotics may also be prescribed.

Get out of the sun and put on a pair of sunglasses. Place a cold washcloth over your eyes. Using artificial tears is also helpful. After the eyes are irritated, and if there is no serious damage, the best course of treatment is to give the eyes a chance to heal by protecting them from further exposure.

How can it be Prevented?

Prevention and treatment of snow blindness follows the same principle: block the harmful UV rays. This is easily done with sunglasses or snow goggles. The best type of sunglasses is the wraparound variety. Glacier glasses with their darker lenses and side covers are also highly recommended. Be sure to wear eye protection even on overcast days since the UV rays are not stopped by clouds.

It you are taking certain medications, it may make you more susceptible than others to photokeratitis. These drugs can make you more vulnerable to UV damage: antibiotics, antideperessants, statins, antihistamines, and diabetes medications. If you concerned about whether you are at an increased risk for photokeratitis, ask your eye doctor.

Knowing how snow blindness occurs is the most important first step to preventing an eye condition that doesn’t ever have to happen.

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