Photo of skier on slope

Snowblindness and its Effects on Your Eyes

Ultraviolet (UV) damage is more than just a warm weather danger; the snow actually reflects 80% of the sun’s rays thereby increasing the risk of sunburn and skin cancer in colder months as well. This is not only a problem for our skin—if left unprotected, our eyes can also suffer damage from the sun’s glare, whether it be reflecting off of sand in the summer or ice and snow in the winter.

Similar to sunburn of the skin, Photokeratitis is a painful eye condition caused by damage to the eye from exposure to UV rays. Snowblindness is a form of Photokeratitis caused by UV rays reflected off of water, ice, or snow. Those at increased risk of this condition include skiers and snowboarders, especially those at high altitudes as UV rays intensify about 4% to 5% every 1,000 feet above sea level. Frequent exposure to sun glare from ice and/or snow can increase the likelihood of developing eye diseases such as cataracts, blurred vision, poor night vision, and age related blindness.

What causes Photokeratitis?

  • Sun reflecting off of sand, water, ice, and/or snow
  • Staring at the sun—for example, watching a solar eclipse directly without wearing special protective eyewear

What are the symptoms of Photokeratitis?

Similar to sunburn on the skin, Photokeratitis is not usually noticeable until after the damage has occurred meaning, you can’t always tell it is happening.

Symptoms include the following:

Eye pain and/or redness, blurriness, tearing, gritty feeling, swelling, sensitivity to bright light, headache, seeing halos, small pupils, eyelid twitching, temporary loss of vision (rare), temporary color changes in vision (rare)

How is Photokeratitis treated?

Since Photokeratitis usually goes away on its own, treatment is usually centered more around providing relief from the symptoms until the eyes eventually heal. The following are some recommendations:

  • If you wear contact lenses, remove them immediately
  • Avoid the sun
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes
  • Place a cold washcloth over your closed eyes
  • Use artificial tears
  • Take a pain reliever(s) as recommended by your ophthalmologist
  • Use eye drop antibiotics if recommended by ophthalmologist

How can I prevent Photokeratitis?

  • Use sunglasses that block or absorb 99% or more of UV rays
  • Use snow goggles designed to block UV rays
  • Use a welding helmet when welding
  • Use solar eclipse glasses approved by The American Astronomical Society (AAS)(if viewing a solar eclipse)

Porter, Daniel. “What is Photokeratitis — Including Snow Blindness?” American Academy of Ophthalmology (February 16, 2019).
Heiting, Gary, OD. “Snow blindness: How to prevent sunburned eyes.” All About Vision (August 2017).
Green, Jenny. “What Are the Dangers of Sun Glare From Snow?” Sciencing (April 25, 2017).