The Medical Minute: Protecting kids' eyes from the sun Tuesday, August 2, 2011 By Marianne E. Boltz It’s summer vacation time! Moms and Dads everywhere are busily shopping for that highly anticipated week at the beach or campground. What one item is on most everyone’s list? Sunscreen. We all know the importance protecting children’s delicate skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. But what many parents forget are the short- and long-term effects of the sun on children’s developing eyes. Even the most diligent mom or dad who may remember to pack sunglasses for the kids at the beach all too often forget about the other 51 weeks of the year when their kids are outside playing. A staggering statistic: the World Health Organization reports that about 80 percent of exposure to UV light occurs before age 18. Long-term exposure to UV radiation can be serious. Research has shown that exposure to small amounts of UV radiation over a period of many years increases the chance of developing cataracts and may cause damage to the retina, the nerve-rich lining of the eye that is responsible for our sharp vision. Long-term exposure to the blue and violet portion of the solar spectrum has been implicated as a risk factor for macular degeneration, especially for individuals who are “sun sensitive” with pale complexions. Chronic UV exposure can also cause skin cancer of the eyelids and skin around the eyes. A more immediate type of sun damage to the eye is photokeratitis, a painful burn of the eye's surface causing symptoms such as red eyes, a foreign body sensation or gritty feeling in the eyes, extreme sensitivity to light and excessive tearing. In addition to having children wear a hat or cap with a wide brim while outdoors, there are several things to keep in mind when discussing sun protection for children. Polycarbonate lens material always is a good idea for prescription or nonprescription sunglasses, as it is considered a “safety” material, particularly important for active children. Photochromic or Transitions lenses, those that darken when outdoors, can be an especially convenient and effective option for children who normally wear glasses on a full-time basis. Lastly, it is never too soon to start having children wear sun protection: infants and toddlers are particularly sensitive to bright light and the damaging rays of the sun. In general, parents of infants 6 months and younger should not expose them to direct sunlight. Children age 6 to 36 months should wear infant or toddler-sized sunglasses such as Baby Banz, which are available in specialty optical shops or online. These have a comfortable, wrap-around neoprene band attached to the front frame and lenses which provides a secure fit for an infant’s small facial features and head. The American Optometric Association offers the following recommendations when purchasing sunglasses for children or adults: -- Don’t be misled by faulty UV claims or labeling. Buy sunglasses where there is equipment available to check the lenses’ UV protection capabilities. Price alone cannot guarantee quality UV protection. -- Check lenses to be sure the tint is uniform, not darker in one area than another and free of distortions. -- Be sure the lenses block enough light. If you can see your eyes easily through the lenses, they probably are not dark enough. -- At a minimum, look for sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation, screen out 75 percent to 90 percent of visible light, and are gray for proper color recognition. -- If possible, choose a wrap-around sunglass frame -- these provide added side protection from bright light and UV radiation. The old saying holds true: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Your children will thank you in years to come for protecting such an amazing gift as their eyes and vision. And, really, what’s one more thing to add to your shopping list? Enjoy your summer vacation! Marianne E. Boltz, O.D., FAAO, is a pediatric optometrist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Penn State Hershey Eye Center.
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