Protect your child’s eyes from the summer sunshine

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Written by Michelle Steenbakkers, O.D., F.A.A.O., School of Optometry at the University of Waterloo

Although many of us remember to apply sunscreen to our child’s skin before spending a day in the sun, it is also important to protect your child’s eyes from harmful ultraviolet rays.

The sun’s ultraviolet radiation is divided into Ultraviolet A (UVA or long wave), Ultraviolet B (UVB or medium wave) and the less common Ultraviolet C (UVC or short wave). Fortunately, UVC is mostly absorbed in the atmosphere before reaching our eyes.

UV radiation can cause premature aging of the eyes just as the same thing can happen to our skin, and long-term UV damage has been shown to be associated with both cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. 

Everyone, including yourself and your child, is at risk for eye damage from the sun year-round. Sunglasses, a broad-rimmed hat or a parasol-umbrella over the stroller can block the ultraviolet rays from reaching you and your child’s eyes.

Children should not only wear sunscreen to protect their skin in the sun, but also wear sunglasses which offer 99 to 100 per cent UVA and UVB protection and block out 75 to 90 per cent of visible light. Polycarbonate lenses are generally recommended for children because they are the most impact-resistant lens material.

The risk of UV damage is greatest from late morning through the afternoon when UV levels are at their highest. On the water UV rays are even stronger, so as much protection as possible should be used. For children spending extended amounts of time in an outdoor pool, consider a swim goggle that offers 99-100 per cent UVA and UVB protection. Prescription swim goggles are available in children’s sizes and can be ordered at your optometrist’s clinic.

The style and colour of sunglasses is a matter of personal choice for your child. Wrap around glasses are best because they eliminate light from entering from the sides of the lens. The lenses should be dark enough to reduce glare, but not dark enough to distort colours. You cannot tell how much UV protection a pair of sunglasses will provide by their price, colour, or by the darkness of the lenses, so look for a label that lists the type and amount of protection. If you are unsure, an eye-care professional can test your sunglasses to check the level of UV protection.

Be certain that the sunglasses not only offer UV protection, but a colour-tint as well. If the lenses are tinted only, the pupil will dilate behind the dark lens and allow more damaging ultraviolet rays into your child’s eyes.

Children’s prescription sunglasses with UV protection and a variety of tints are available at your optometrist’s office. If you worry that your child may lose a pair of prescription sunglasses, you may consider lenses that change with the intensity of UV light by turning darker when outdoors and lighter when indoors. These types of lenses also offer UV protection.

While enjoying the summer sunshine, remember to protect your child’s eyes from those harmful UV rays. If you have any questions about the health of your eyes or the use of sunglasses, please contact your eye care professional.

Dr. Michelle Steenbakkers is a clinical lecturer at the University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry.

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