Protect your eyes all winter long

Feb. 28, 2018
Photo: Getty Images.

Hitting the slopes, strapping on snowshoes or heading outside for a wintry jog? Then don’t forget a small but mighty piece of gear: eye protection.

Goggles or sunglasses are the key to keeping your eyes safe from the three main threats that winter sports pose, and that Dr. Nathan Hamburger, an ophthalmologist in Steamboat Springs, outlines below.

Snow blindness

Too much sun exposure can burn the cornea, or the eye’s clear, protective outer layer. Eyes are especially vulnerable to photokeratitis, commonly known as snow blindness, during the winter, since snow is much more reflective than plants or dirt, sending the sun’s powerful rays back up to your face and eyes. Plus, skiing usually takes place at higher altitudes, where there’s less atmosphere to naturally block the sun’s intense rays.

Most of the time, you won’t notice symptoms of snow blindness until later that night or the following day.

“You come home and find your legs are sore and so are your eyes,” Hamburger said.  “It can be pretty uncomfortable, and can cause blurry vision and fairly significant eye pain.”

If you experience any symptoms of snow blindness, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. He or she may treat the condition with lubricating eye drops, medications to improve healing and reduce inflammation, and even antibiotics if there’s a concern of infection.

Most of the time, the condition can heal on its own, though it can take days or weeks to resolve.

“You don’t want your eyes to be chronically exposed to UV rays because you can get permanent problems,” said Hamburger, who does procedures at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Wearing goggles or sunglasses that are UV protective is the best way to prevent snow blindness. Plus, eye protection also shades the skin around the eyelids, which is one of the most common places for skin cancer to form.

Dry eyes

When it comes to drying out eyes, wind and dry wintry air create the perfect storm.

“In a lot of snow sports, we’re going fast, so the wind is high. And since the air is already drier in winter, you can dry your eyes out,” Hamburger said. “Dry eyes is a pretty common problem, but if it’s not treated, it can lead to eye and vision problems.”

Symptoms include blurry vision and irritated eyes. Minor irritation can be treated with lubricating eye drops, also known as artificial tears. If irritation persists, see a doctor.

Prevention is the best medicine, so keep those goggles on while you ski or snowboard.

Eye trauma

A high-speed impact, an awkward fall and a few turns through the trees can all result in trauma to the eye. Be especially wary of tree branches, which can cause serious injuries.

Again, wearing goggles can help prevent injury in the first place.

Though remembering your eye protection may sometimes feel like a hassle, the effort is worth it.

“A large percentage of our perception is visual. Sight is part of how we interpret the world, how many of us do our jobs and is used to communicate,” Hamburger said. “All of these injuries to the eye are usually solved with simply protecting your eyes.”

This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Feb. 12, 2018.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at