What is snow blindness?
By Dr. Paul Koelliker, MD
Snow, (even when it's less than we'd all hoped for) is something we all need to account for when we go out to enjoy it. One thing you might not be thinking of is the phenomenon of Snow Blindness.
Medically known as photokeratitis or ultraviolet keratopathy is an ultraviolet (UV) light burn to the eyes. Essentially the eyes become sunburned—which is painful.
This injury can also occur from taking part in water sports or welding without proper eye protection. Exposure to bright light at higher elevations increases risk of burning one’s eyes.
Symptoms are usually delayed and can take as long as 6 to 12 hours to appear. Eye pain, burning, headache, eye redness, blurry vision, excessive eye watering, gritty sensation when blinking and eyelid twitching are common symptoms.
Usually symptoms are self limited and will resolve in a day or two with eye rest and staying indoors. More severe cases may require pain medication and or antibiotic drops or ointment. Contacts use should be avoided during an episode.
Usually, there is no permanent damage after an episode of photokeratitis. Severe or repetitive cases may cause scarring of the cornea and decreased vision. A secondary danger of decreased vision while travelling across the snow can be serious and poor decisions can be made causing additional problems.
Prevention is the best option for avoiding this condition. Sunglasses and goggles should block ultraviolet light and should be worn when outdoors in the snow. Overcast days can still have enough UV light reflected off the snow to cause symptoms and eye protection should be worn on those days as well.
Children are resistant to wearing sunglasses and goggles at times, but their eyes are burned more easily. Children should wear appropriate protection when spending time outside in the snow.