Having your kids wear sunglasses when the ground is covered with snow is as important as having them wear them on a summer day at the beach.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement on ultraviolet light, UV damage is cumulative over a lifetime. Sunglasses may help to reduce UV-related eye diseases in later life.
What Parents Should Know About the Effects of the Winter Sun:
The sun's rays can burn the outer layers of the eyes, just as the rays can burn the skin.
Snow reflects up to 80% of the sun's rays. Snow has a far greater percentage of reflection then water, sand, cement, grass, or dirt. When sunlight reflects off of snow, it makes it very bright outside and can create an intense glare that makes it difficult to see.
Outdoor winter activities increase risk. Certainly, one day on the slopes or sledding with the kids will not cause eye disease. Being out in snow-covered hilly terrain allows reflected rays to hit the eyes from all angles.
Altitude also increases radiation. For example, winter resorts tend to be located at higher elevations; the higher the elevation, the less atmosphere to filter out harmful rays. Moreover, cold weather, light clouds, and a sun low on the horizon offer little protection.
Recognize the early symptoms of snow blindness. Snow blindness is a form of photokeratitis, a painful eye condition, caused by UV rays reflected off ice and snow. It is like a sunburn to the cornea of the eye, and can occur in anyone—even in the unprotected eyes of infants being carried or pushed in strollers, toddlers frolicking in the snow, and older kids out sledding.
In infants and toddlers not wearing sunglasses: Beware of excessive blinking or unexplained crankiness. Remember, infants under six months should be kept out of direct sunlight. See Baby Sunburn Prevention.
In older children: They may complain of eye discomfort, excessive brightness, irritation, dryness, and difficulty blinking. Their eyes may appear red and teary. These symptoms are often mistakenly attributed to wind or cold. The symptoms may appear immediately or after 8 to 12 hours following exposure. Pain and temporary blurring can set in even later.
Ideally, ask a pediatric ophthalmologist about the type of sunglasses to buy. Sunglasses are available in supermarkets and elsewhere and may be less expensive. But, there is no one in those locations to help you select the correct pair for your child. Most summer sunglasses allow too much light to enter the eyes.
What to look for: You want sunglasses that block or offer 99% and higher of 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. Look for a label or sticker on the sunglasses that denotes full UVA and UVB protection. See Sunglasses: Healthy Eyes are Always in Style from the American Optometric Association (AOA).
Hats, scarves, and sunscreen complete protection. The sun is frequently overlooked as a cause of eyelid problems. The skin of the eyelids is sensitive, thin, and burns easily. Hats with brims or visors at least three inches wide help shade the eyes and eyelids. Sunglasses will do this, too. Scarves help protect the neck. Apply sunscreen to any skin that remains exposed, but avoid getting sunscreen lotion or sprays in your child's eyes.
Don't stress if your young child won't keep his or her sunglasses on. Sunglasses are most important at times when kids will be in direct sunlight for several hours. Set a good example by wearing sunglasses (and sunscreen) yourself.
Know how to treat snow blindness. When symptoms occur outside, get your child out of the sun. If shelter is unavailable, place a loosely woven scarf, sweater, or ski hat over the eyes. Relieve discomfort with cold compresses, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), a dark environment, and artificial tears from a local pharmacy. If your child's eyes are still red and irritated 24 hours later, call your pediatrician.
Virtually all cases of snow blindness heal spontaneously over a few days. There are no immediate visible after-effects—just as there are no immediate after-effects from everyday sun exposure. But, the damage that occurs is permanent. It becomes apparent as cataracts decades later in life.
By teaching your children the importance of wearing sunglasses during all seasons of the year and educating them about how to care for their eyes, they will be more likely to continue caring for their eyes and wearing sunglasses as they grown into adulthood.
Remember, if you have any questions or concerns about your child's vision, ask your pediatrician—the sooner the better.
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