Flying grit from off-roading or yard work, chemicals in pools, a sun that sears delicate tissues -- summer is an obstacle course for your precious eyes. You can still have fun, but you may need to take some steps to protect your peepers.
A lot of this is common sense, which, sadly, is not always so common.
Take it from an emergency room doctor. Eyewise, he has seen it all. Here are some top recommendations from several experts.
1. Wear Sun Protection
"A lot of people come to the ER with burned corneas each summer," Richard O'Brien, MD, an emergency physician with the Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, Penn., tells WebMD.
"We have a lot of NASCAR up here. You'd be amazed how many people go to that, a concert, or other all-day event without wearing a visor cap and sunglasses. They even lie on their shiny RVs -- that is like being in a tanning booth.
"They are fine at first, then go home, go to sleep, and wake up in an hour in excruciating pain. I have had people come in here crying."
The sun, of course, shoots out rays of different lengths. The most damaging are the ultraviolet rays, which are classified as UVA and UVB.
"Most decent sunglasses," Richard Bensinger, MD, an ophthalmologist in private practice in Seattle, tells WebMD, "protect against UVB. If they also protect against UVA, it should say so on them."
Sunglasses may be one thing you don't want to get at the Dollar Store, O'Brien observes. They should be close to the face or wraparound. Some people like dark tints, but the UV-blocking coating is the same on any color. Polarized lenses may be more comfortable for workers outside because they block glare.
Too much ultraviolet can accelerate the formation of cataracts, Bensinger adds. "There are very solid studies that show this; people who stayed in the sun tended to get cataracts eight to 10 years before a carefully selected group that was mostly in the shade or indoors."
The hat-sunglasses combo should also be worn at the beach, amusement parks, bike rides, boating, or anyplace where there is prolonged sun exposure, O'Brien cautions.
And don't forget the little ones -- they need the same.
2. Wear Serious Eye Protection While Doing Home Projects
How often do you see Dad weed whacking or mowing and little Junior playing nearby? Both should be wearing eye protection. "Dad is behind the mower and high up," explains Bensinger. "A flying rock could hit him but more likely will go sideways and hit someone lower to the ground nearby."
By eye protection, this does not mean reading or sunglasses, O'Brien emphasizes. "This means professional quality goggles from a home supply store. I have seen corneal lacerations come into the ER from yard work. We're talking surgery to fix these."
"Chopping wood, hammering nails, sawdust, anything that can fly around," Bensinger advises people to "wear protection."
What if you do take a hit in the eye? "The first determinant is vision, pain is secondary," Bensinger says. "If your vision is not affected, put some ice on it (unless it's a penetrating injury like a BB)."
3. Protecting Eyes During Sports
"The bigger the ball, the less likely an eye injury," Bensinger notes. "Basketball is unlikely to injure eyes. But baseballs and softballs can [and so can] golf balls, squash, and handballs."
According to the U.S. Eye Injury Registry, 5% of all eye injuries result from baseballs.
In Malaysia, where badminton is the national sport, Bensinger says, there are many eye injuries from the weighted and feathered shuttlecock.
When playing most ball sports, eye protection is warranted, the doctors say. "The objection will be that protection is encumbering," Bensinger says, "but hockey goalies said that at first, too, about their facemasks." Most sporting goods stores sell plastic, molded shields or masks appropriate for different sports.
"Paintball," remembers Bensinger, "that's another bad one for eyes. Commercial places make you wear eye protection, but some people run out in the backyard and start shooting [without it]."
4. Avoid or Protect Against Chemicals
You can jump in a pool and if your eyes sting, it may mean the chemicals aren't balanced. "This is more of a comfort issue," Bensinger says. "Rarely will it affect your vision."
O'Brien goes farther. "If it hurts, get out!" he cries. "I don't care how much you paid, there is no vacation worth messing with your eyes." Rinse immediately with clean water, even if you have to buy a bottle. "Then," he adds, "do not go back in." If the stinging persists for hours, you should get a doctor to take a look.
To soothe irritated eyes, use artificial tears, not anti-redness drops.
O'Brien also warns against poison ivy, oak, and sumac. It's very bad when that gets into eyes. "You have a few moments to wash it off," he says. He also tells a story of how the irritating oil in these poison plants can stay on clothes for years. "I used to have firefighters come in with poison ivy," he recalls. "One day, one would have it, later a different one. Turns out, one of their turnout coats had been contaminated with poison ivy, and different ones were grabbing it."
O'Brien also warns against insect bites around the eye. "These are nasty," he says. "You don't want to put repellent in your eye, though."
Bensinger also says you don't want to wear your contacts in the pool. "The surface tension holding them in will be washed away by water," he says, "They find a lot of contacts in pool drains."
Infection can also get started from untreated lake or pond water getting under the lens. "Likely that would wash out if you had no contact in there," Bensinger says.
5. Protect Against Oddball Events
If you think summer is one big eye accident waiting to happen, you might be right. Consider these other threats:
- Pellet or dart guns. Yes, kids still get these and wield them. They should have protective eyewear. Actually, O'Brien notes, kids are less supervised in summer and may get into older kids' toys. Another tricky game? Archery.
- Fireworks. Even professionals make mistakes with these, but leave it to them, anyway, O'Brien says. No matter how often this warning goes out, 8,500 people get hurt by fireworks each year in the U.S. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2,000 of these are eye injuries with one-third of the eye injuries resulting in permanent eye damage.
- Injury to LASIKed eyes. Postsurgery patients need to be extra careful in general.
- Snapping bungee cords from tying down luggage. These can lash out at 50 mph!
- Battery acid from improperly jumped auto batteries. Keep goggles in the trunk. Steam from spewing radiators could also injure eyes.
"What's the best thing you can do for your eyes in summer?" Bensinger jokes. "Take them with you to Hawaii."
Just don't forget those shades, activity-appropriate eyewear, and that common sense.