by Dr. Riaz Ahmed, past-president of the Alberta Association of Optometrists
During a recent ski trip to Banff, I was surprised to witness the number of people on the mountain without any type of protective eyewear. While most skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers on the mountain had the proper gear to protect their head, body, hands and feet, they fell short on protecting one of their bodies’ most valuable assets – their eyes.
I was reminded that many people think that protecting their eyes from the sun is only necessary when it’s warm outside. During the summer months, the mental checklist for sun protection includes sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. However, it’s easy to forget to take these same protective measures once the snow starts to fall.
The danger in this situation is ultraviolet (UV) radiation — invisible rays of energy emitted from the sun 365 days a year. There are two main types of UV rays that reach the earth’s surface, known as UVA and UVB, both of which can have damaging effects on eyes and skin. When eyes absorb too much UV light, it can lead to serious eye conditions such as cataracts, retinal damage, growths on the front of the eye and eye cancers, especially on the delicate skin surrounding the eyes. People with lighter coloured eyes and skin are even more at risk for damage as they have less of the protective pigment that helps absorb these rays.
Unfortunately, many simply don’t understand the long-term damage UV rays can have. According to the Canadian National Institute For the Blind (CNIB), only nine per cent of Canadians are aware that sun can cause permanent harm to their eyes. While UV rays are undoubtedly stronger during the spring and summer months, people shouldn’t ignore these harmful effects as soon as fall arrives. Those who are keen to get on the mountain after the first snow fall should be particularly mindful since UV exposure increases on reflective surfaces, such as snow.
There are several proactive measures you can take to ensure your eyes remain in good health. The first step is to be cautious year-round while exposing your eyes to the sun. Wearing proper protective gear is important, which includes UV-blocking sunglasses with wrap-around frames to keep the sun out from the sides, and broad-brimmed hats.
Second, maintain regular visits with your optometrist who will assess your individual eye health and discuss the best options for protecting your eyes year-round. The Alberta Association of Optometrists recommends that adults have an eye exam every one to two years, and at least annually for those over 65 depending on the presence of eye disease. Children should have their first eye exam at six months, again at age three, and every year while they are in school.
Comprehensive eye exams with a doctor of optometry can also reveal insight about your overall health. These visits not only allow an optometrist to detect eye diseases, but also uncover serious health conditions which often have early warning signs present in the eye.
For example, optometrists often identify nevi (similar to skin moles or freckles) in the pigmented layer at the back of the eye. If exposed to UV rays over a lifetime, these can develop into a rare form of cancer called choroidal melanoma, which can be deadly if not treated. Also, as mentioned earlier, the eyelid area is one of the areas of the body where skin cancer is first diagnosed. The most common form is invasive lesions called basal cell carcinomas that grow deep into the surrounding tissue.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned about the eyes is this: good vision and good eye health are often unrelated. You may have 20/20 vision but you may also have risk factors for UV related eye disease. For this reason, it’s important to remember eye protection year-round.
Whether you’re skiing on top of a mountain or sitting on a beach chair on your well-deserved winter vacation, remember to protect your most precious sense against the harmful effects of UV rays.