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Ophthalmologists warn of the impact of UV exposure on children’s eye health

As the beginning of the school year approaches, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) is warning parents and schools to ensure that children’s eyes are properly protected.

While most people are aware of how damaging UV exposure is for the skin, many people are less aware of the devastating impact that sun exposure can have on their eyes. UV exposure can cause serious eye disease, which can lead to vision loss and, eventually, blindness.

UV exposure is especially harmful to children’s eyes because they are still developing and their lenses aren’t able to filter UV light as effectively as adults’ eyes can. Sydney ophthalmologist Dr Shanel Sharma, who has a special interest in paediatric ophthalmology and has studied the effects of UV exposure on children’s eyes, warns that ophthalmologists are seeing an increase in cases of young children with significant UV damage to their eyes, and is calling on schools to implement a ‘No hats, no sunglasses, no play’ policy to ensure that children are sun safe while they’re at school.

“Studies show that UV damage to eyes occurs in childhood and is linked to eye disease later in life, including cataracts, pterygium, solar keratopathy, and skin cancer of the eyelids and around the eyes,” explains Dr Alina Zeldovich, Eye Surgeon and Clinical Lecturer at Sydney University.

“We have seen a sharp increase in the number of children presenting with eye damage caused by UV exposure, which is unsurprising given that UV levels have increased dramatically over recent decades. The level of eye protection needed now is much greater than it was in the past, and so parents and schools need to be even more vigilant in ensuring that children’s eyes are protected. Children should wear suitable hats and sunglasses whenever they are outdoors.”

Ophthalmologists recommend that parents ensure their children wear broad brimmed hats when they’re outdoors, as well as sunglasses that:
• are rated Category 3 of the Australian Standards for UV protection;
• have a wraparound frame, designed to minimise unfiltered side light entering the eye;
• have lenses with UV 400 protection;
• have lens coatings to block reflected light from entering the eye; and
• have polarised lenses.

One Sydney mother who knows all too well the risks of UV exposure to children’s eyes is Victoria Hill, whose nine-year-old daughter developed eye disease from spending too much time out in the sun without adequate eye protection.

Victoria realised something was wrong when her daughter complained of sore, irritated eyes and problems with her vision, prompting Victoria to take a closer look.

“I was really worried; I didn’t know what was happening. When I took her to the ophthalmologist I found out that she had swollen conjunctiva (eye inflammation) from sun damage,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I have always made my daughter wear a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses outside, but it turns out the sunglasses were not providing enough protection.”

“I was furious when I found out that many of the 'UV protected' sunglasses sold in chemists and other shops do not provide adequate protection from UV rays to prevent eye damage. Now I always ensure the sunglasses my daughter wears meet the Category 3 Australian Standard for UV protection and are wraparound and polarised.”

“Now I want everyone to know the risks of poor eye protection and what measures they need to take to prevent their children from irreparable eye damage. I just don’t want any other parents to see their children suffer the way my daughter has.”

Dr Sharma says that many parents are diligent about ensuring their children’s skin is protected from harmful UV rays, but they need to be aware that UV damage is just as likely to occur to their child’s eyes. “The damage is occurring to the eyes from direct, reflected and overhead UV light, hence damage can occur from sunrise to sunset all year round. We need to ensure that all children are protected with sunglasses. It can be difficult for parents to pick a pair of truly protective sunglasses,” she explains.

“Ensuring that the sunglasses your child is wearing provide adequate protection can be hard. We recommend always looking for wraparound sunglasses as these help to prevent light from coming in from the sides. Look for glasses that say they are Category 3 UV protection and polarised. It is definitely better to be safe than sorry!”

 

 

For more information or to arrange an interview contact Emma Carr or Laura Safaj at RANZCO on 02 9690 1001 and media@ranzco.edu