For Sunburn in the Eyes, or Near Them, Optometry Doctors Share Cautions & Solutions

Updated: Aug. 15, 2023

Not that you're staring straight into the sun—but a sunburn in your eye, or around it, can happen...and it can be serious.

What to do if you get a sunburn in your eye

We put sunscreen on our limbs, chest, back, faces and lips, but we can’t put sunscreen on our eyes. That’s one reason wearing sunglasses is important…especially near snow or water. “When people are at the beach, it’s recommended to wear sunglasses to prevent this problem, but if you’re on the water—like in a boat—you can get a double exposure of UV rays from them reflecting off the water, so always wear sunglasses then, too,” explains Brian Boxer Wachler, MD, ophthalmologist and medical reviewer at All About Vision. “If swimming or surfing, look for swim goggles with UV protection.”

Let’s be clear about the damage the sun can inflict on your eyes. “You cannot get a sunburn on the eye itself,” explains Vicente Diaz, MD, MBA, a Yale School of Medicine ophthalmologist. “You can get a sunburn in the skin around the eye, which is recognized by pain, redness, and swelling,” Dr. Diaz says. “The sun can also cause damage to structures inside the eye, such as the retina, which is identifiable by loss of vision or a new blind spot.”

Photokeratitis, says the Cleveland Clinic’s blog, is a temporary condition that affects the eyes when bright sunlight reflects off snow or ice. Photokeratitis, also referred to as “snow blindness,” is caused by ultraviolet light exposure—usually from the sun, but artificial light can cause this, too—and can cause damage to various parts of the eye, including the cornea and the conjunctiva. Photokeratitis may also cause pain.

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How do you know if you’ve sun-damaged your eye?

Michael J. Cooney, MD, MBA, a vitreoretinal surgeon in New York, says symptoms of sunburn in the eye “include redness, swelling of the eyes, blurred vision, sensitivity to bright light, and twitching of the eyelids.” Dr. Cooney adds: “You will know if you have sunburn if you are feeling multiple of these symptoms.”

The problem with sunburns, perhaps especially of the eyes, is that we often don’t realize we’re getting a sunburn until it’s too late. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, unlike thermal burns to the skin, it can take four hours after sun exposure for sunburn symptoms to be detected.

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Can sunburn in the eye be treated at home?

Some cases of sunburn in the eyes, or around them, may be treated at home. However, it may be wisest to see an eye doctor, especially if there’s any loss of vision.

For a sunburn on the skin around the eyes, Dr. Diaz says: “In the case of a burn on the skin around the eyes, taking ibuprofen by mouth would help with pain and inflammation. You may apply aloe vera, as long as you maintain a safe distance from the eye itself, and lubricating eye ointments and steroid eye ointments would be safe to apply to the skin around the eye and are safer for the eye itself,” he says. Again, speak with your eye doctor to know how to treat your symptoms. (Also, be aware that sun exposure to regions of skin that are near the brain may actually increase your risk of brain cancer.)

Dr. Boxer Wachler recommends keeping the eyes closed and using artificial tears until the eye feels normal. “If a cornea abrasion develops, then an eye doctor will typically place a ‘bandage’ contact lens on to help pain and healing and also prescribe antibiotic drops to prevent infection.”

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When should an eye sunburn send you to a doctor?

Ken Perry, MD, FACEP, an emergency room physician in Charleston, SC, says, “Burns to the eye are a very concerning diagnosis that can cause short-term vision changes and over time can contribute to vision loss.” Dr. Perry explains that corneas are susceptible to UV radiation from the sun and don’t blister like the rest of our skin. “Instead of blistering, corneas become cloudy,” Dr. Perry says. “This cloudy appearance can cause vision decrease in obvious ways, since it may be like looking through a semi-opaque curtain. It can also cause the eye to be red, inflamed, and painful. In all of these instances, medical care should be sought.”

Over time, UV radiation in the eye can cause the eye’s lens to become very damaged. This can contribute to cataracts in some people with consistent UV exposure. Even in patients who don’t have damage that causes vision loss, UV radiation can cause a change to the eye. It can contribute to cataracts in some people with chronic UV exposure, and some people who don’t wear sunglasses have a halo around their iris. “This is called Arcus senelius, and is the result of years of UV radiation to the eye,” Dr. Perry says.

To help prevent sun damage to the eyes, the answer is clear: Protect your eyes from the sun with sunglasses and a hat.

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