Although they are often used to make a fashion statement, sunglasses play a very important role in protecting your eyes from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most people acknowledge the need to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays, however, many ignore the risks those same rays present to our eyes. Wearing sunglasses that have at least 99 percent UV protection while outside, is just as important as putting on sun block.

Skiers who spend a day on the slopes without sun protection can attest to how painfully damaging a single high dose of UV can be. Photokeratitis (sunburn of the eye) is very painful, makes the eyes red, tearful and extremely sensitive to light. These symptoms usually do not persist long and do not result in long term damage. However, the cumulative lifetime UV exposure to the eyes can be very damaging. In fact, cumulative UV damage is implicated in a number of other ocular diseases, including climatic droplet keratopathy, pinguecula, pterygium, cataract, and age-related macular degeneration.

Pterygium is a very common ophthalmic condition where the only scientifically proven cause is UV exposure. Pterygium, which is very common among surfers and farm works, are much more likely to occur among populations or industries that are outdoors. The prevalence of pterygium increases in latitudes and altitudes where ambient UV radiation is more intense.

Ophthalmologists expect to see a rise in the incidence of UV associated eye disease in the coming years due to environmental factors like ozone depletion. In a recent study 91 percent of the parents surveyed stated they regularly applied sun block to their children’s skin while only 50 percent reported that their children wore sunglasses. Experts say millions of parents are putting their children at increased risk of sun damage.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that you follow these tips to protect you and your children’s eyes:

• Wear sunglasses whenever outside during the day even if it is cloudy. It is especially important to wear sunglasses in the early afternoon and at higher altitudes.
• Choose sunglasses that block between 97 percent and 100 percent of UV-A and UV-B rays.
• Select sunglasses that are large enough to protect the eyes from all angles.