Quiz: Look at the pictures. How could the adults and children improve their sun protection? Answers at the end of the article.
If you live in snow country or are planning to take your kids on a visit there, outfit them with a pair of snow-appropriate sunglasses (“shades,” in teen talk). While the sun’s warming rays are off frolicking in the tropics, the troublemaking ultraviolet (UV) ones bombard us the year ‘round. Snow worsens the rays’ effects, with young children particularly at risk. Yet a mere third of parents correctly protect their children’s eyes from the winter sun.
Here is what you should know:
1. The sun burns the outer layers of the eyes just as the sun burns skin. And, as with skin, damage occurs each time of exposure, with the effects cumulative for life. The younger the child, the more years of damage ahead. Children’s skin and eyes contain less melanin than adults’. Melanin is the substance that helps block out the damaging UV rays.
2. A winter day in snow country can be more damaging to eyes than a summer day at the beach. Snow reflects almost 80% of the sun’s rays, far more than water or sand. Reflected rays are additive to direct rays in causing damage. Modern winter clothing allows kids to spend more time outdoors. Many winter activities take place in snow-covered hilly terrain, allowing reflected rays to penetrate eyes from different angles. Most winter resorts are located at higher elevations; the higher the elevation, the less atmosphere to filter out harmful rays.
3. Recognize early signs of too much sun. Symptoms include sensations of discomfort, perception of brightness, difficulty blinking, and dryness and redness of the eyes. Such discomfort, often called snow blindness, is often erroneously attributed to wind or cold. Unfortunately, the onset of such symptoms generally occurs many hours after exposure, making prevention particularly important. While the immediate effects of snow blindness are generally reversible, the cumulative long-term effects are a major cause of impaired vision in the elderly.
4. Consider sun exposure when infants cry excessively. Minimize exposure; thirty minutes suffice to cause discomfort. Check if the sun is in an infant’s eyes when you push them in a stroller or carry them in a backpack. Sun shields are available for strollers and carriers. (Other causes of infants crying in cold weather are frostbite and tight clothing.)
5. Seek shelter from the sun. Ideally, go indoors or into a car. The shade from buildings or mountains offers virtually no protection from UV rays if the sky is visible directly above. When shelter is unavailable, place a loosely woven scarf or ski hat over the eyes, allowing some vision. Relieve discomfort with cold compresses, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), a dark environment, and saline eye drops. Seek medical help, if necessary. Virtually all cases heal spontaneously over a few days. But damage is cumulative.
6. Buy children’s sunglasses from eye care professionals. Sunglasses are available in supermarkets and variety stores and may be less expensive there. But there is no one to help you select correct ones. Some sunglasses for children are “fun glasses” − meant for children’s parties and offer no protection.
7. Most summer sunglasses allow too much light into the eyes for snow country. Choose ones that give 100% protection against both UV-A and UV-B radiation, fit snugly, cover the entire area between the eyebrows and middle of the cheeks, and wrap around toward the ears. Wrap-arounds prevent rays from entering from the side and help prevent irritation from wind. Large lenses protect from flying ice particles and dirt and from branches when skiing and snowmobiling. Glasses need not be expensive. Cost is mostly related to frames. Polarized lenses add cost and reduce glare, increasing comfort but adding no protection.
8. Hats with brims three or more inches wide help protect the eyes as well as the eyelids. The skin of the eyelids is thin, fragile and susceptible to damage that may cause cancer decades later. Ski caps and helmets offer no protection; baseball caps offer limited protection. Some winter sports call for protective goggles.
9. Insist that children wear sunglasses. No exceptions. In fact, most infants and toddlers enjoy wearing them. Allow them to see their surroundings in different colors. Let them choose color and style. Wear sunglasses yourself. Adjustable straps help keep glasses in place.
10. Miscellaneous. Teach children never to look directly at the sun. Check if medications your children take increase sensitivity to the sun. UV damage to the eyes occurs all day, even when the sun is low on the horizon.
Answer to the quiz: (a) None of the sunglasses wrap around to the ears; (b) No one is wearing a hat with a wide brim.