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Posted July 14, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Doctors recommend glasses to avoid sun damage

Lifeguard Rachel Truban checks her glasses
Lifeguard Rachel Truban checks her glasses outside Woodstock's town pool on a recent summer afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

Kayleigh Rogers sports her sunglasses
Kayleigh Rogers, 13, of Edinburg, sports her sunglasses outside Woodstock's town pool recently. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

It turns out your grade-school teacher was right when she made you see a reflection of a solar eclipse through a cereal box hole.

Looking at the sun can cause solar retinopathy, which damages the retina, according to Winchester optometrist Dr. Bob Lein.

Just last week, he treated a patient whose eyesight was damaged when taking a picture.

"It can cause pigment changes," Lein said.

The retina can get little blind spots or burn holes, he said.

"You can have blind spots in your vision from that," Lein said. "A lot of people try to take photographs, stuff like that. They will look through their camera lens. It still happens, even though people are warned not to stare at the sun. It's just the UV [ultraviolet]. It's the wavelength of the light that's [damaging]."

There is no treatment for solar retinopathy, he said.

"It's damaged the central part of the retina," Lein said. "You can't go in there and do anything to it. A lot of times, they're just small blind spots. [There] can be distortion in letters, depending on how bad it is."

The best protection against eye damage is sunglasses with UV protection, he said.

"Or, if they're out on the water a lot, use polarized lenses," Lein said. "You can even get UV coating on glasses without a tint. You can even get that on your regular glasses. People that work on computers a lot, we usually recommend UV coating on the glasses."

He also cautioned against looking at welding arcs, and suggested wearing UV goggles in tanning beds.

There is some concern that sun exposure could lead to more rapid formation of cataracts, said Dr. Chad Dansie, of Winchester Pediatric Clinic. He hasn't treated any children for eye damage caused by the sun, but said general sun protection is a good idea, "especially for the little babies."

Infants should be kept in the shade and wear hats, Dansie said.

"The times I think a lot of people forget, too, is when there's a lot of reflective light," he said.

Photokeratitis, also known as snow blindness, causes short-term painful corneal burns, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's "Prevent Eye Damage" report. This occurs when sunlight reflects off of snow, water and even concrete, the report says.

The EPA also blames UV rays for cataracts, pterygiums -- normally benign growths on the eye -- and skin cancer on eyelids. It recommends the wearing of sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.

Five percent to 10 percent of skin cancers occur on the eyelid, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation's Web site, www.skincancer.org.

That site claims that one in 10 cataracts are the result of sun exposure, and that sunlight might be a culprit in some cases of macular degeneration.

However, ophthalmologist Dr. Thomas Keenan, who practices in both Winchester and Woodstock, said he thinks eye damage from sun exposure is rare.

"First of all, there's certain eye diseases that occur as we get older," he said. "Cataracts are one."

The lens sits directly behind the pupil, and just as skin cells regularly shed, so do cells from the lens, Keenan said. Instead of floating away, these cells pack more tightly in the lens.

"Every day you're alive, your lens starts to get a little cloudy [from these cells]," Keenan said. "Every single 10 years of your life, a higher and higher percentage of people get a cloudy lens. It's kind of a natural aging change that happens to everybody.

"All diseases tend to increase as we get older."

Occasionally, studies will conclude that light exposure might increase cataracts, he said.

"Personally, I'm not so sure there's ever been enough conclusive studies to prove that point," Keenan said. "It certainly doesn't hurt to wear [sunglasses]. Will it help? Maybe, but probably not.

"Macular degeneration, if somebody can come up with something that has the potential for helping it, then the press picks up on it pretty quickly."

Some studies have indicated that light exposure might exacerbate certain cases of macular degeneration, he said.

His suggestion for protecting your eyes? Safety goggles.

"Anybody that ever uses a hammer to strike anything, put safety goggles on," Keenan said.

He knows from first-hand experience the importance of protecting the eyes from projectiles. While finishing a basement years ago, Keenan was using a nail gun and didn't don safety goggles until chided by his wife. Thirty minutes later, he was grateful to her.

"[A nail] came back and impaled itself completely through the front part of my safety goggles and stopped about a half-inch from my eyeball," Keenan said. "I would've died."

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