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In the midst of the short, cold days of winter, many of us stash away our sunglasses until the spring and summer months. But winter can wreak havoc on unprotected eyes, sometimes even more so than in sunny summer months. So to keep your sight sharp and your eyes healthy, proper eyewear is essential—no matter what the season!
Discover the best ways to protect your eyes from the elements this winter—wind, glare, and ultraviolet radiation exposure—to ensure your comfort today and long-term eye health tomorrow.
Although we can't see it, we are exposed to UV radiation daily, even in overcast weather—a fact many of us forget when the temperatures start to drop. And because snow reflects almost 80 percent of UV radiation, your overall exposure is nearly doubled when skiing, snowboarding, shoveling or playing in the snow.
"Our skin and our eyes are organs, and both are exposed to the elements," explains Stephanie Kirschbaum, OD, a VSP network doctor at Doctors Chan, Moon & Kirschbaum in Grass Valley, CA. "And just like our skin, our eyes can become sunburned from prolonged exposure." That damage can cause intense pain, discomfort and even temporary vision loss known as snow blindness.
When it comes to those winter rays, snow isn't the only factor at play. At higher elevations, the air is much thinner, which allows for more ultraviolet radiation in the atmosphere. In fact, UV radiation goes up 3 percent for every 400 meters (or about 1,312 feet) of altitude. So, at an elevation of 8,000 feet, your risk of UV radiation increases by over 18 percent—all the more reason to protect your peepers when hitting the slopes!
Don't play in the snow or live in the mountains? Don't stow away those sunglasses just yet. Because UV levels are greater in areas near the earth's equator, the farther south you live, the greater your risk. If you're lucky enough to live in a sunshine state, keep your eyes safe by keeping your sunglasses on outdoors.
While time and minimal treatment will eventually alleviate the short-term pain and discomfort from UV exposure, it's still important to protect your eyes from long-term damage down the line.
"Too much exposure can actually change the cells," explains Dr. Kirschbaum, "causing lens and retina damage that tends to show up later in life."
Cataracts, macular degeneration, and potentially serious lesions known as pingueculae and pterygia are some of the long-term effects linked to UV exposure. "That's why goggles and protective sunwear are so important, no matter what your age."
Besides the risk of UV exposure, cold winds and bright glare are two more winter woes to be weary of. Dry, fatigued, or itchy eyes can be irritating and potentially dangerous. So what can we do to find relief?
It all comes down to wearing the right gear. "Wind and glare protection are both very important, especially for winter sports and recreation," explains Dr. Kirschbaum. "Our eyes have perfect equilibrium—it really helps to have some kind of shield protecting them."
To prevent turbulence and better block out drying wind, choose wraparound sunglasses or goggles with a foam liner. Look for special polarized lenses, which absorb glare and prevent fatigue by allowing your eyes to relax.
When shopping for sunglasses, be sure to check the label and choose a pair with 100% UVA/UVB protection. If you can't track down a label on your favorite pair of sunglasses, play it safe and keep looking for a pair with some literature. "Sunglasses must be properly labeled with SPF information," explains Dr. Kirschbaum. "It's an FDA requirement."
If you wear prescription glasses or contact lenses, the best place to start is with your eye doctor. "Because your doctor knows your prescription requirement, they'll be able to provide information you need to customize a pair of goggles or sunglasses," suggests Dr. Kirschbaum. Look for brown and amber tints, which enhance depth perception and contrast, making them perfect for mogul skiers and snowboarders. Yellow tints are also great for providing greater clarity in foggy or hazy conditions.
No matter the season, play it safe by keeping the proper eyewear like sunglasses and goggles on hand for all your outdoor activities.