Hypothermia and frostbite are by far the biggest dangers of being out in cold weather for too long without proper protection. Dehydration is another common issue since many people forget to hydrate when spending time outside in cold and snowy conditions. Another issue, though one considered far less than hypothermia, frostbite or dehydration, is snow blindness.

Snow blindness happens when a person leaves eyes unprotected from the sun’s UV rays for a long period of time when spending time outside in snowy or icy conditions. Known at photokeratitis, snow blindness is basically a sunburn of the eyes caused by the inflammation of the cornea and the conjunctiva. It can also happen in warmer temperatures when spending time on water, such as when boating, but of course isn’t called snow blindness in these cases.

Symptoms of photokeratitis may not show up for several hours after exposure. They include:

  • Watery or teary eyes
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Swollen eyes
  • Eye pain
  • Gritty feeling in eyes
  • Temporary blindness
  • Permanent blindness

Though we should always protect eyes against UV rays when outside even on cloudy days, the need to do so increases dramatically on snowy days when the sun reflects off the snow with an amplifying effect. In addition, snow sports like skiing and snowboarding as well as winter hiking and snowshoeing often taken place at higher altitudes where the sun’s UV rays are even stronger.

If you experience any of the symptoms of snow blindness, remove yourself from exposure and sit in a dark room or inside with your eyes covered until symptoms abate. If you wear contacts, remove them while eyes heal. A cold, wet compress and/or over-the-counter pain relievers can help alleviate the pain. Should symptoms persist or worsen, especially with pain or any level of blindness, see a doctor right away.

Unfortunately, many people feel themselves protected from snow blindness when they really are not. This happens when an individual wears inadequate eye protection, which can actually increase the sun’s harmful effects. The most common types of inadequate protection include eyewear that lets the suns rays in from the side and eyewear that does not block out 99% of UV rays.

So how can you be sure your eyes are protected from snow blindness? Use the following tips to help evaluate your current eyewear and, if necessary, to choose better eyewear for spending time in snowy conditions.

  1. Make sure your eyewear blocks 99% of the sun’s harmful UV rays.
  2. If wearing sunglasses, choose a wrap-around style to keep UV rays from still reaching eyes when reflected through the sides. The Jackson NemesisEdge Kazbek and Bolle Contour are not only polarized (see #4 below) and wrap-around, but they are also affordably priced.
  3. Consider goggles, especially when out in windy or blizzard-like conditions. The Pyramex I-Force Goggle and the Guard Dogs G-100 Safety Goggles are terrific, inexpensive options.
  4. Choose polarized lenses. These lenses provide the best protection in snowy conditions because they significantly reduce the glare that reaches eyes.
  5. Use protection in addition to glasses or goggles. Wearing a hat or helmet with a visor also helps keeps additional UV rays from reaching your face.
  6. Always wear eye protection. UV rays can harm eyes even when the sun isn’t out, so be sure to wear eye protection even on overcast days.

While most people wear their sunglasses almost exclusively in summertime or only when the sun shines brightly, making it a year-round habit is a good idea regardless of your climate and the sun’s appearance. In fact, eyes can be harmed even more in snowy conditions because of the added reflection factor even on cloudy days. Since the sun always sends harmful UV rays our way, wearing UV protection year-round simply makes good sense for those who want to maintain their eye-health for the long term.