Snow blindness

What is snow blindness ?

Snow blindness is a type of photokeratitis that is caused as a result of exposure to sunlight which is reflected from snow.

Photokeratitis or snow blindness refers to a painful condition of the eye that is caused due to exposure of inadequately protected eyes that to ultraviolet rays. Such UV rays may have either artificial or natural sources. Snow blindness can be compared to sunburn of the conjunctiva and cornea. One usually notices the symptoms and feels the pain, a few hours after such exposure. In addition to pain, the affected individual may have sensations of grittiness in the eyes, similar to feelings of sand in one’s eyes as well as increased tearing of the eyes.

There are many ways to prevent injury to the eyes that result from snow blindness. One may wear relevant snow goggles, welding goggles with the right fitters, sunglasses that have been rated for adequate ultraviolet protection or a welder’s helmet that protects the eyes and blocks out almost all of UV radiation.

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Treatment of snow blindness involves avoidance of exposure to UV rays, intake of pain relief medications and shielding of the cornea. Snow blindness is also known by many other names such as welder’s flash, flash burns, bake eyes, keratoconjunctivitis photoelectrica, corneal flash burns, arc eye, or niphablepsia.


Symptoms of snow blindness

Some of the signs and symptoms of snow blindness are discussed below:

  • Pain in the eyes
  • Twitching of the eyelids
  • Increased outflow of tears
  • Contracted pupils
  • Distress from bright lights
  • The bright light reflected from the snow may result in temporary decrease in sight.
  • The affected individual may face difficulties in distinguishing colors and may see everything in red color for some time

The symptoms do not appear as soon as one’s eyes are exposed to UV radiation, but tend to occur a few hours after the exposure. Most of symptoms automatically vanish within 24 to 36 hours. All that is required of the affected person is to stay indoors and rest the exposed eyes. However, it is argued that in certain cases of snow blindness, the constriction of pupils may be prolonged for a few days.

In rare instances, snow blindness may result in serious complications such as solar retinopathy which is a condition that can sometimes lead to partial permanent loss of vision. This complication usually arises due to chronic exposure to reflected light from the snow.

Causes of snow blindness

  • Snow blindness is usually caused due to intense exposure to ultraviolet light that is reflected from snow.
  • Welders who do not wear appropriate welding equipment such as welding goggles or proper welding helmet are at greater risk to develop photokeratitis. This form of photokeratitis is known as arc eye.
  • Snow blindness or photokeratitis can also occur due to the use of tanning beds, with unsuitable eyewear.
  • Most of the natural sources of ultraviolet light include bright sunlight or sunlight that is reflected from snow or ice. Other rare cases of UV exposure are sunlight that is reflected from the sand or the sea.
  • Fresh snow does maximum damage to the eyes as it tends to reflect nearly 80 percent of the ultraviolet radiation. As compared to this, sea foam reflects about 25 percent while a dry, sandy beach reflects only about 15 percent of UV radiation.
  • Places at higher altitudes or in the polar region are at greater risk for increased cases of snow blindness. This is due to the fact that with every thousand feet of altitude above sea level, there is an increase by 4 percent in the intensity of ultraviolet rays.

Treatment of snow blindness

  • Anesthetic eye drops may be used to provide temporary relief from the pain caused due to snow blindness. However, its continued use is not advised as anesthesia of the eyes obstructs the healing of cornea. Also, it may result in corneal ulceration and even loss of sight.
  • The use of cool and wet compresses can be used over the eyes to alleviate the discomfort. Artificial tears are also helpful.
  • On occasions your health care provider may prescribe Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug eye drops to reduce eye pain and inflammation.
  • In cases of severe distress caused due to snow blindness, the doctor may advice the use of systemic pain killers to be taken orally.
  • The eyes should not be rubbed or touched. Also, individuals who use contact lenses should stop using them till the condition improves.

Prevention of snow blindness

  • The use of eye protection or sunglasses that absorb nearly all of UV rays and allow just about 5 to 10 percent of visible sunlight is an effective way to prevent snow blindness. Such sunglasses should also come with big lenses as well as side covers to prevent exposure to any incidental light. It is important to note that sunglasses should be worn even during overcast conditions, as ultraviolet rays tend to pass through the clouds.
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