Woman at eye doctor dry eye treatment exam

What is Snow Blindness and How Can You Prevent It?

The winter season brings beautiful snow and holiday cheer but also opens the door for a temporary yet painful eye condition known as photokeratitis, or snow blindness. Cause primarily by the reflection of ultraviolet (UV) rays off snow and ice, snow blindness can affect anyone who spends time outdoors without adequate eye protection and can lead to discomfort and potential vision problems. 

As you embrace winter activities this season, from skiing to mountain hiking, it’s critical to understand the potential eye health risks that come with them. In this article, Clarkson Eyecare sheds light on what snow blindness is, its causes and symptoms, and most importantly, how you can prevent it. 

Understanding Snow Blindness

 Snow blindness, clinically known as photokeratitis, is like a sunburn that affects the eyes. It occurs when the cornea, the eye’s front surface, is exposed to excessive ultraviolet (UV) rays. Unlike many eye conditions that develop over time, snow blindness can happen in a relatively short period, especially in environments with high UV exposure. While the condition is usually temporary, it can range from mild discomfort to severe pain and temporary vision loss. 

The cornea acts as a protective window for the eye and is susceptible to UV damage because of its position and transparency. When exposed to intense UV rays, the corneal cells can become damaged or die off, leading to inflammation. This reaction is the body’s way of repairing the damage, but it can also lead to symptoms associated with snow blindness. The high reflectivity of snow, which can reflect up to 80% of UV rays, significantly amplifies your eyes’ UV exposure in the winter months. 

Causes

  • Exposure to UV Rays from Snow Reflection: One of the primary causes of snow blindness is the intense reflection of UV rays from snow surfaces. This reflection can catch you off guard, as it can occur even on cloudy days or in shaded areas. 

  • Other Environmental Factors: Apart from snow, other surfaces such as ice, water, and even white sand can reflect UV rays and contribute to snow blindness. High altitudes also play a role, as UV radiation increases with elevation. Additionally, certain medications and pre-existing eye conditions can increase your sensitivity to UV rays, increasing the risk of developing snow blindness. 

Symptoms

While temporary, snow blindness can cause significant discomfort and interfere with your ability to carry out daily activities. Some of the common symptoms of snow blindness include: 

  1.  Eye Pain and Discomfort: One of the first signs of snow blindness is noticeable discomfort or pain in your eyes. This pain can range from a mild irritation to a severe burning sensation, similar to having sand in your eyes. 

  2.  Blurred Vision: Your vision may become blurry or hazy. This is due to the corneal surface being roughened or damaged by the UV rays, disrupting the normal clarity of vision. 

  3.  Sensitivity to Light (Photophobia): Increased sensitivity to light is a classic sign of snow blindness. Bright light, whether from the sun or indoor lighting, can cause significant discomfort and require you to squint or close your eyes. 

  4.  Redness and Swelling: Your eyes may appear red, and there might be swelling in your eyelids, which is a response to the inflammation of the cornea. 

  5.  Tearing and Watery Eyes: An excessive tearing or watery discharge from your eyes is common when experiencing snow blindness. This is the eye's natural response to irritation and an attempt to remove any foreign objects or debris. 

  6.  Temporary Vision Loss: In severe cases, you may temporarily lose vision. However, this is rare and usually resolves as the cornea heals. 

Are You at Risk for Snow Blindness?

While anyone who spends time outdoors during the winter can develop snow blindness, some individuals may be at higher risk. For example, outdoor sports enthusiasts who spend ample time skiing, snowboarding, or hiking in snowy environments are exposed to much higher levels of UV radiation due to the reflective surfaces. At higher altitudes, the atmosphere’s thinner layer provides less protection against UV rays, also increasing the risk of snow blindness.  

Even if you’re not spending your weekends on the slopes, living in a region with extended winter seasons, a higher altitude, or reflective landscapes can increase your likelihood of developing snow blindness. Prolonged exposure to bright, reflective surfaces and the thin atmosphere presents a higher risk and are important to consider when winter rolls in. 

How to Prevent Snow Blindness This Winter

Even if you have a higher risk of developing snow blindness because of your location or your hobbies, there are a few easy ways to protect your eyes from excessive UV radiation. 

  • Sunglasses and Goggles: The primary defense against snow blindness is wearing sunglasses or goggles that provide 100% UV protection. These eyewear options not only block harmful UV rays but also reduce glare from snow and ice. For activities like skiing or mountaineering, wraparound goggles or glasses provide better coverage and protection against UV rays from all angles. 

  • Hats or Caps: Wearing a hat with a brim during the winter months can help reduce the amount of UV rays reaching your eyes. 

  • Limiting Exposure: If you live or work in an area with many reflective surfaces, take regular breaks in shaded areas to minimize extended UV exposure. 

  • Environmental Awareness: Throughout the winter, be mindful of your time in highly reflective environments, such as snow-covered landscapes or high-altitude regions.  

Above all, whenever you spend time outside this winter, make sure to wear sunglasses or UV-protection goggles to shield your eyes from harmful UV rays and prevent snow blindness. 

What to Do if You Develop Snow Blindness

Even with the best preventative measures in place, you may still develop snow blindness. The good news is fast treatment can alleviate your symptoms and accelerate your recovery, and you most likely won’t experience any long-term impacts on your vision. If you notice symptoms of snow blindness, immediately take these steps: 

  1. Rest your eyes in a dark room to reduce eye strain. 

  2. Apply a cold compress to alleviate discomfort and swelling. 

  3. Avoid rubbing your eyes, as this can worsen the irritation and delay healing. 

  4. If you wear contact lenses, remove them to reduce inflammation. 

Treat Snow Blindness at Clarkson Eyecare

If your symptoms do not improve within 24-48 hours, your vision is significantly impaired, or you’re experiencing intense pain, seek medical attention immediately at your local Clarkson Eyecare. Our expert optometrists will prescribe medicated eyedrops to manage your symptoms and can schedule follow-up appointments to monitor your healing process. With prompt care, most patients fully recover within a few days. 

As you gear up for an eventful winter, schedule an appointment with Clarkson Eyecare to ensure your eyes are prepared for increased UV exposure.  

Virginia Beach
Virginia Beach
Alliance
Centralia
Independence Plaza
Westerville
South Columbus
Maryland Heights
Overland
Mason and Manchester
Nine Mile
Northfield
Fern Creek
79 Crossing
Tecumseh
Shea Boulevard
West Chester Tylersville
Highland
The Spec Shoppe: St. Joseph
Paducah
Affton
Creve Coeur
Chanhassen
Edwardsville Club Center
West Park
Middleburg Heights
Blue Ash
Mariemont
Union
Washington
Farmington
Alpharetta
Belleville
Perryville
Willoughby
Manchester
Wesley Chapel
Bricktown
Austell (EW Connector)
Sharpsburg
Downtown St. Louis
Southeast Novi
Vinings
Centerville
Clifton
Okemos
West Camino Del Sol
Navarre
Springhurst
Dearborn Heights
Fairfield
Medina
Perry
Marysville
Warrenton
Town Street
Town & Country Crossing
Florissant Dunn Rd.
Bexley
Ballwin
Alton
Pavilion Crossing
Haslett
Granite City Nameoki
New Albany
Columbia Broadway
Wentzville
Chesterfield
Shakopee
Stonebrook
Woodlands
Legacy
Keller
Countryside
Tampa (Busch)
Elk River 
Brunswick
Shiloh
Maplewood
Trinity
Three Rivers
Shepherdsville
Bogey Hills
Ann Arbor on Main
Worthington
Ann Arbor Children's Clinic for Vision Enhancement
Elizabethtown
Woodbine
Lake St. Louis
West Broad St.
Hilliard
Pontiac
Howell Township
Ann Arbor Plymouth
Coventry
Mansfield
Grand River
Matawan
Pleasant Hill
Imperial
Edwardsville Crossing
Clarksville
Conyers
Lilburn
Anderson
Delta Township
Saline
Suwanee
West Chester Union Centre
Lake Ridge
Hazlet Plaza
Red Bank
Columbia Rock Bridge Red Oak
Jennings
Lakeland
Lebanon
Wildwood
Pacific
Butler Hill
Arnold Park Mall
Valrico
Calvert City
Berryhill
Snellville
Braselton
Ft. Mitchell
Lone Oak
Perdido
Davis Highway
Kenwood
Harrison
Lutz Sunlake Centre
Plant City North
Gulf Breeze
Tesson Ferry
Telegraph Plaza
South County
St. Louis Hills
Central West End
South Grand
Milford
Loveland
Kettering
Dublin
Reynoldsburg
Riverview
Downtown Columbus
Riverview Vision Performance Center
Eureka
O'Fallon South
94 Crossing
Arnold
Franconia
Valley Station
141 & Olive
Chesterfield Valley
Collinsville
Columbia
Middletown
Festus
Beacon Center (Alexandria)
Fenton
Breese
Cold Spring
Lake Lansing Rd.
Western Hills
Florissant HWY 67
Kirkwood
North Lebanon
Benton
O'Fallon North
Mid Rivers
Bardstown
Sea Girt Mall
Eatontown
Wooster
Delaware
Kissimmee
Towncenter Plaza (Sterling)
Manassas
Fredericksburg
Green
Mt. Orab
Morrow
Gahanna
Webster Groves
Troy
Rock Hill
Clayton
High Ridge
Ellisville
Brentwood Pointe
Oxboro
Murray
Mayfield
Waterloo
Swansea
Mt. Vernon
Godfrey
Fairview Heights
Miramar
Fort Walton