Snow Blindness: Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

snow-blindness

Snow blindness is a painful but temporary form of vision loss caused by overexposure to the reflection of ultraviolet (UV) rays. In this article, we discuss the symptoms, prevention and treatment for snow blindness.

What is snow blindness?

The medical term for snow blindness is photokeratitis. Photo means light and keratitis is the inflammation of the cornea. Snow blindness is the result of your cornea being akin to sunburned. Photokeratitis is caused by damage to the eye from UV rays. Sunlight is the main source of natural UV rays [1]. Unlike sunburn on your skin, symptoms of snow blindness indicate you’ve already been in the sun for too long.

Despite what the name suggests, you don't need to be in the presence of snow to be affected by snow blindness. Other terms for snow blindness include corneal flash burn, arc eye, welder's flash and sand man's eye.

Snow itself can reflect more than 80 per cent of UV rays. Extreme sports such as mountain climbing, snowboarding and skiing are done in high altitude where the sun UV's rays are more potent. At higher altitudes there is more snow and attached to this is the common term “Snow blindness”. You can still get snow blindness at lower altitudes, although the risk is much less, almost half in fact.

Other sources of snow blindness can include UV rays off sunbeds or sparks from welding.

What are the symptoms of snow blindness (photokeratitis)?

Typical snow blindness symptoms include:

  • Eye pain
  • A burning sensation in the eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Sudden sensitivity to light
  • Watering eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Swollen eyes
  • Swollen eyelids
  • The feeling that there is something in your eyes

How to prevent snow blindness

Prevention is always better than a treatment or cure and, given how painful snow blindness can be, you want to do everything you can to avoid getting it in the first place.

Here are some ways you can prevent snow blindness:

  • Wear sunglasses with UV protection anytime you are out in the sun, especially if you're around snow and water
  • Make sure your glasses offer a minimum of 99% UV protection
  • Stick to wrap-around sunglasses that offer maximum protection
  • Opt for polarized sunglasses as they block intense reflected light
  • If you're in an area densely covered with snow, avoid taking off your glasses until you're inside

What is snow blindness caused by?

Snow blindness is caused by overexposure to the reflection of UV rays, be it natural or artificial. It can be caused by UV rays reflected off sand, snow and water as well as from sun lamps and tanning beds.

Snow blindness in human beings is sometimes caused by welding equipment. In this instance, it is often referred to as "welder's flash".

Snow blindness happens when UV light enters your cornea and the sensitive outer layer (the epithelium) becomes irritated and inflamed, resulting in a burning or itchy sensation.

Glasses for snow blindness

If you have snow blindness, it's best to wear glasses rather than contact lenses until you've experienced a few days with no symptoms.

To prevent snow blindness from happening in the first place, we would recommend you wear sunglasses with 100 per cent UV protection. Wrap-around sunglasses are a great choice as they offer maximum protection from harmful UV rays.

In addition to this, you can wear photochromic lenses to protect your eyes on even the cloudiest of days.

Snow blindness goggles

In addition to wearing glasses for snow blindness, snow goggles or sports goggles can also be worn to protect your eyes and prevent snow blindness.

Can you recover from snow blindness?

Snow blindness is usually only temporary and clears up by itself within a few days. Nevertheless, we would recommend that you see your doctor as soon as possible to assess the extent of the damage.

Is snow blindness permanent?

In most cases, snow blindness is not permanent and can go away with plenty of rest and by staying indoors, out of the sun.

However, rare cases of snow blindness can lead to solar retinopathy which can result in permanent vision loss.

Treating snow blindness

You can treat snow blindness and relieve any pain by following the advice below:

  • Painkillers can help subdue any feelings of discomfort. Make sure to take the recommended dosage and ensure that there are no interactions with any other medications you may be taking
  • Avoid bright light and stay indoors
  • Wear sunglasses during the day and a night mask when you go to sleep
  • Keep your eyes moistened by using artificial tears. Stick to mild, preservative-free formulas that are gentle on the eyes and will not cause more irritation
  • Dampen a cloth in warm water and place it over your eyes to provide temporary relief. We recommended you do this first thing in the morning and just before you go to sleep
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes
  • Avoid wearing contact lenses until the issue subsides
  • Do not rub your eyes

[1] Porter, D. and Pagan-Duran MD, B. (2019). What is Photokeratitis — Including Snow Blindness?. [online] American Academy of Ophthalmology. Available at: https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/photokeratitis-snow-blindness  [Accessed 21 May 2019].

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