Danger of snowblindness increases in spring | SummitDaily.com

Danger of snowblindness increases in spring

SUMMIT COUNTY – Spring skiing in Summit means partying and peeling off the layers. Sun worshippers flock to the beach at A-Basin, bare their bellies at Copper Mountain’s Eenie Weenie Bikini Contest and ride out the soft snow at Keystone and Breckenridge. But snowriders who don’t take precautions against the intense sunshine can end up with a painful eye condition.

Incidents of keratitis, or snowblindness, increase in the spring. Keratitis is an inflammation of the cornea (the transparent tissue over the front of the eyeball that covers the iris and pupil). Exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun burn the cornea, causing it to swell. Burns, and the pain associated with them, range from mild to severe. Highly reflective snow fields at high elevation increase the risk of keratitis.

While short exposures to sunshine rarely cause injuries, a few hours spent skiing or riding without eye protection can lead to keratitis. And, the ultraviolet rays are just as harmful on overcast days as they are on sunny days.

Ninety percent of the keratitis cases doctors see at the Summit Medical Center occur in the last two weeks of March, and the other 10 percent occur in the first couple of weeks of April, said Julie Zangari, Summit Medical Center emergency department supervisor.

“We see a lot of it, given our altitude,” Zangari said. “On nice, warm spring days, people tend to want to take off their sunglasses and enjoy the sunshine.”

In the last four years, the medical center has treated an average of 13 cases per year. (The high was 20 in 1999; the low was nine in 2001.) This year, doctors at Summit Medical Center have only seen one case, Zangari said. She postulated new signs at some ski areas reminding people to use sunscreen and eye protection may have decreased the incidence of keratitis.

Symptoms include sensitivity to light, seeing everything with a tinge of red, increased tearing, blurred vision, difficulty keeping eyes open because of pain or sensitivity, and very red, swollen and burned-looking eyes. Symptoms begin six to 12 hours after sun exposure. The eyes usually heal spontaneously within 48 hours of the exposure.

Medical treatment involves administering eye-numbing drops or pain medication to soothe the eyes and, at times, antibiotic ointment or eye patches. Long-term damage is rare, but ultraviolet radiation damage to the cornea is cumulative, similar to the effects with sunburn.

Prevention is simple; wear the essential layer – sunglasses – to protect eyes.

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at knicoletti@summitdaily.com.

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