From frostbite to hypothermia, there are a lot of health risks of going outside during the winter—especially for prolonged periods of time. However, one of the risk that often gets swept under the rug is snow blindness. Most people aren’t at risk for snow blindness because they don’t spend very much time outside. However, if you go on a snowboarding or skiing trip and don’t have proper eye protection, you could harm your eyes.
If you want to know more about snow blindness, what you can do to prevent it, and what to do if it happens to you, continue reading. We’re breaking down all of these talking points and more.
Table of Contents
- What Is Snow Blindness?
- Symptoms of Snow Blindness
- Causes of Snow Blindness
- Treating Snow Blindness
- How to Protect Yourself From Snow Blindness
What Is Snow Blindness?
Snow blindness is a temporary but painful condition where there is a loss of vision due to the overexposure to the UV rays from the sun. The medical term for this is photokeratitis and it basically means inflammation of the cornea. When there is too much light that hits the cornea, the transparent outer layer of the eye is affected and gives the cornea sunburn.
Snow blindness gets its name because it’s more common in the winter. The snow reflects up to 80% of the UV rays that hit it. It’s almost as if your eyes are getting a double dose of sunlight. Just like a normal sunburn, it can take a while for symptoms to appear. This means that you could be exposing your eyes to more harmful UV rays even after you have already done significant damage, making the condition much worse.
Symptoms of Snow Blindness
The symptoms of snow blindness don’t always appear right away. Sometimes you may not notice the symptoms until your corneas have already been damaged for several hours. The severity of symptoms will depend on how much damage is done. Some common symptoms include burning pain in the eyes, the feeling that something is in your eye that you can’t get rid of, light sensitivity, red and swollen eyelids, watery eyes, blurred vision, headache, and an exaggerated glare appearing around indoor lights. A mild case may just cause your eyes to be bloodshot and teary. With a more severe case, your eyes could even swell shut.
It’s a less common symptom, but snow blindness can also cause temporary vision loss and temporary color changes in the vision, hence the word blindness in the name. Vision loss that happens will typically return in a day or two. The greater exposure to the UV rays, the worse the damage is and the worse your symptoms are going to be. Luckily, snow blindness will rarely result in permanent vision loss or damage.
Causes of Snow Blindness
Snow blindness is caused by overexposure to artificial or natural UV light. The “photo” part of the word photokeratitis means “light” and keratitis is inflammation of the cornea, hence the name.
The cornea is a clear, dome-shaped tissue that covers the eye. It doesn’t contain any blood vessels, so it needs tears to be healthy and lubricated. The outer layer of the cornea is the epithelium. There are thousands of nerve endings located in the cornea, which makes it sensitive to any pain or damage. If there is too much UV light that hits the cornea, this outer layer becomes irritated and inflamed and can cause a feeling of itching or burning.
It’s common for sunlight to cause snow blindness because the UV rays reflected off the snow, sand, and water can burn the cornea. However, light from tanning booths, sun lamps, or blowtorches can also cause inflammation and lead to snow blindness. Those who use welding equipment are prone to what is known as “welder’s flash,” which is another name for the same condition.
Treating Snow Blindness
Snow blindness will typically go away on its own once you give your corneas enough time to recover. Symptoms will gradually decrease over a day or two, but you can speed this the process up or slow it down by acting in certain ways. Here is more information about what you should and shouldn’t do to help your snow blindness heal.
Avoid Rubbing Your Eyes
In addition to not rubbing your eyes, you also want to remove contact lenses if you wear them until your symptoms have gone. Snow blindness can be aggravated and even caused by contact lens use.
Snow blindness will continue to get worse if you are staying outside exposed to ultraviolet light. Instead, go inside and moderate how much light your eyes are exposed to. You will also want to close any draperies or blinds to cut off light from the sun. While you may not be exposed to UV light inside, bright lights can still agitate your eyes. Try giving your eyes time to rest by dimming the lights and not staring directly at lights like those created by computer screens and phones.
Use Over-the-Counter Relief
There are many ways you can help to soothe any pain in your eyes. For example, you can use a cold compress to soothe your eye pain or burning eyes, or you can keep your eyes moisturized with artificial tears in order to speed up healing. The artificial tears and ointments on your eye have a similar effect as aloe vera on skin that is sunburned. As long as the eye drops aren’t pain relieving, you should be fine. Use pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or aspirin, for pain relief.
Make an Appointment With an Eye Doctor
A doctor can confirm whether or not you have snow blindness by looking at your eyes for UV damage, but there isn’t much your eye doctor can do to treat the condition. Resting the eyes away from any UV light is the best way to promote healing. However, it is important to make an appointment with an eye doctor if your symptoms aren’t getting better or are getting worse after 24 hours.
The condition should heal quickly on its own, so continued loss of vision or worsening eye pain can mean you have a different eye condition. Your eye doctor may be able to prescribe something to help with pain if it is in fact snow blindness and you are in a lot of pain. If the degree of sunburn is significant enough, you may even need a topical antibiotic to prevent a secondary infection, which only an eye doctor can prescribe.
How to Protect Yourself From Snow Blindness
Preventing snow blindness is actually easy. There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from the UV rays that reflect off the snow. Keep in mind that once you have become symptomatic, it’s too late and you have already been in the sun for too long. The best thing you can do is prevent it. There are plenty of different ways you can prevent it and staying out of the sun during peak hours can also be helpful to minimize the damage.
While you may know about dressing in layers to protect yourself from the cold, layers typically don’t include eyewear. Wear sunglasses that block 100% of the sun’s UV rays when you are outdoors during the daylight. Photochromic sun sensitive lenses can also be a convenient option. For skiing or snowboarding, or when you plan to be outdoors for an extended period of time, it’s best to invest in quality sunglasses that feature a wrap-around style. This protects your eyes from direct sunlight, as well as indirect sunlight that can come in from the sides.
For the best protection, choose sunglasses or snowmobile goggles that have soft rubber flanges or side shields that block sunlight from striking the front of the eyes, the sides, and below and above the eyes. If you aren’t sure whether the sunglasses or goggles you have block the sun’s UV rays, speak with an eye care practitioner and have them checked. You can never be too safe.
For extended time out in the snow, you may want to consider snow goggles. There are a number of benefits of snow goggles when compared to sunglasses. Goggles offer a wide field of vision where sunglasses can only cover a portion of your face, and goggles will also protect more of your face. Not only will you get protection from UV rays but also goggles can block cold air, snow, and ice particles that can be near your eyes. Goggles can provide a more secure fit and many have adjustable straps to hold them in place against your face.
Most will be able to fit over a helmet, and when skiing or snowboarding, sunglasses are more likely to break or can be easier to lose. If you lose the sunglasses on your skiing or snowboarding trip then you can’t prevent snow blindness. Consider always having a backup pair. You will experience less fogged lenses since they restrict airflow and have vents to allow the air to pass between the lenses and your eyes. Since goggles are stronger and sturdier than sunglasses, they are more likely to survive a crash or fall and therefore, your eyes will be more protected than just against the sun.
When choosing sunglasses or goggles, the lens color will be important for protecting your eyes from snow blindness. Darker lenses or mirrored ones will block a lot of the light, so they can be ideal for sunny and bright days. If you are on the slopes on a foggy or cloudy day then green, yellow, or pink lenses work better because they still block the harmful light but let light in so you can see.
Polarized lenses can be a safety hazard since it’s harder to see icy patches and wearing them could lead to injury. Instead of polarized lenses, make sure that your lenses block UV rays. Consider an anti-scratch coating if you are going to be in the backcountry a lot, because scratches can impact your vision over time.
Wear a Brimmed Hat
If your sunglasses don’t block 100% of UV rays, you’ll want to wear a wide-brimmed hat to supplement them. While a wide brimmed hat won’t help you much when you are out on the slopes since you need to wear a helmet, it can protect you when your helmet isn’t on. If you are going to be exposed to wind, a wide brimmed hat with a chinstrap is necessary in order to keep the hat in place.
Peripheral vision is also going to be a factor, especially if you are playing outdoor sports. What are you going to be doing while wearing the hat? If you are going to be doing an activity that generates body heat, you may need just a visor or something that will let your head evaporate.
The best brim is about four inches wide or even larger, and the brim also needs to be angled downward. With a downward sloping brim, you can be protected for more hours of the day, since it depends on the sun’s location. For example, when the sun’s rays are directly overhead, a three-inch brim could provide protection. However, when the sun is ascending or descending, the rays can sneak under the hat and strike your eyes. The wider the brim of the hat, the better you can block the sun. Don’t forget the angle of the brim so you are always protected.
Remember Snow Blindness Isn’t Exclusive to Sunny Days
This condition can also happen without snow and sun. In fact, it actually does happen quite often. The term snow blindness has become popular because snow is so reflective. Mountain climbing, snowboarding, and skiing all take place at high altitudes where the sun’s rays are already strong, and snow can reflect more of the UV rays that hit it. The higher altitude actually makes the UV light stronger. With every 1,000 feet of elevation from the sea, the UV light intensity increases by about 4%. Both of these factors double the risk of getting the condition when you compare it with being outdoors at a lower altitude in the summer months.
Both white sand and water are highly reflective of the sun’s UV rays and can increase the risk of snow blindness. Ultraviolet rays can also penetrate clouds so there is the risk even on an overcast or cloudy day. If there is no sun, snow blindness can occur from man-made sources of ultraviolet radiation, such as a welder’s torch. This type of injury is usually called a flash burn but the symptoms are very similar to snow blindness. Tanning booths and sun lamps can also cause this if the proper eye protection isn’t used.
When spending any time out in the sun, especially if it’s near snow, it’s important to be aware of snow blindness. This condition can be painful, and while it’s not likely going to cause any permanent damage, it’s still not something you want to experience. Even if the symptoms go away on their own, it can still drag your life to a halt while you wait for your eyes to heal. Next time you go skiing or play another winter sport, make sure you remember to wear eye protection.