Sunburned eyes (aka photokeratitis) are basically as miserable as they sound. Here's how to make sure your peepers are protected in the sun.
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Portrait of beautiful young woman shielding her eyes
Credit: Getty Images/Westend61

If you've ever stepped outside on a bright day without your sunglasses and then cowered like you're auditioning for the sixth Twilight movie, you may have wondered, "Can your eyes get sunburned?" The answer: Yep.

The dangers of getting a sunburn on your skin get a lot of airplay during warmer months (for good reason), but you can get sunburned eyes too. It's a condition known as photokeratitis and, luckily for you, you can get it pretty much any time of year.

"Interestingly, more cases of photokeratitis occur in the winter than the summer," perhaps because people simply don't think about sun damage when it's cold outside and therefore don't properly protect themselves, says Zeba A. Syed, M.D., a corneal surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital.

While experts aren't totally sure how common photokeratitis is, "it's not highly unusual," notes Vivian Shibayama, O.D., an optometrist with UCLA Health. (Related: 5 Weird Side Effects of Too Much Sun)

If the thought of having sunburned eyes has you low-key freaking out, don't. There are treatments available, though admittedly, they don't typically save you from dealing with some unpleasant symptoms before you're healed — and having sunburned eyes is about as fun as it sounds.

Basically, the best way to avoid the pain that is photokeratitis is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here's what you need to know.

What is photokeratitis, exactly?

Photokeratitis (aka ultraviolet keratitis) is an uncomfortable eye condition that can develop after your eyes have unprotected exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). That unprotected exposure can damage cells in your cornea — the clear outer layer of your eye — and these cells then slough off after several hours.

The process is pretty similar to having a sunburn on your skin, just on your eyeballs, explains Dr. Shibayama. After those cells in your cornea slough off, the underlying nerves are exposed and damaged, leading to pain, sensitivity to light, and that nagging feeling like something is in your eye. (Related: 10 Surprising Things Your Eyes Reveal About Your Health)

How do you get sunburned eyes?

You've probably walked outside without your sunnies plenty of times and done just fine. There's a reason for that. "Under normal circumstances, the structures of the eye are somewhat protective against UV radiation damage," says Kimberly Weisenberger, O.D., assistant professor of clinical optometry at The Ohio State University. The problem is when you're exposed to high levels of UV radiation, she explains.

High levels of UV radiation can come from a variety of sources, but the AAO specifically lists the following risk factors:

  • Reflections off of snow or water
  • Welding arcs
  • Sun lamps
  • Tanning beds
  • Damaged metal halide lamps (which can be found in gymnasiums)
  • Germicidal UV lamps
  • A burst halogen lamp

People who spend a lot of time outside, like hikers and swimmers, may also be more likely to develop photokeratitis, sheerly because of their frequent exposure to the sun, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

What are the signs and symptoms of sunburned eyes?

Here's the thing: You can't usually tell if your eyes are getting sunburned until after the fact. "Like having sunburned skin, photokeratitis is not usually noticed until after the damage has occurred," explains Vatinee Bunya, M.D., associate professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "There is usually a delay in symptoms of a few hours to 24 hours after the exposure to UV light."

However, once they set in, these are some of the most common symptoms of photokeratitis, according to the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Pain or redness in the eyes
  • Tears
  • Blurry vision
  • Swelling
  • Light sensitivity
  • Twitching of the eyelids
  • Gritty sensation in the eyes
  • Temporary loss of vision
  • Seeing halos

Keep in mind: The symptoms of photokeratitis can overlap with those of other common eye conditions, such as pink eye, dry eye, and even allergies, notes Dr. Shibayama. Usually, you won't have discharge like you can with pink eye or allergies, she adds. But photokeratitis "will feel very much like dry eye," explains Dr. Shibayama. (Related: Mask-Associated Dry Eye Is a Thing — Here's Why It Happens, and What You Can Do to Stop It)

A major tip-off that you might be dealing with photokeratitis over dry eye — other than recently being exposed to intense UV light — is that both eyes are usually involved, adds Dr. Bunya. "If only one eye is having symptoms, then you may actually have another eye problem such as dry eye or pink eye," she says.

What are the long-term effects of photokeratitis?

Granted, research on the possible long-term effects of photokeratitis is lacking, explains Dr. Weisenberger. That said, there doesn't appear to be a link between sunburned eyes and the development of other eye conditions. "Typically, photokeratitis resolves without causing long-term changes or effects on the front surface of the eye," says Dr. Weisenberger. "However, prolonged or significant UV exposure can have harmful and lasting effects on other [eye] structures."

If you regularly get sunburned eyes, you could put yourself at risk of conditions such as cataracts, scarring on your eyes, and tissue growth on your eyes (aka pterygium, which can potentially lead to blindness), which can all lead to long-term vision damage, explains Dr. Shibayama. Regular, unprotected UV exposure can even lead to skin cancer on your eyelids — something that is "unfortunately fairly common," says Alison H. Watson, M.D., an oculoplastic and orbital surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital. In fact, about 5 to 10 percent of all skin cancers happen on the eyelid, according to Columbia University's Department of Ophthalmology.

How to Treat Sunburned Eyes

There is some good news with photokeratitis: Symptoms usually disappear within 48 hours, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But you don't have to suffer through the pain until then.

To be clear, experts highly recommend visiting an ophthalmologist if your eyes are sunburned. In other words, don't just try to put in eye drops and call it a day. There are different treatments your eye doctor may recommend, depending on how bad your sunburned eyes are. The AAO lists the following options:

  • Lubricating eye drops
  • Topical antibiotic ointments like erythromycin (for pain and also to prevent a bacterial infection)
  • Avoiding contact lens use until your cornea is healed

Taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers and using a cool compress can also help with the pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Amazon reviewers swear by the Newgo Cooling Gel Eye Mask (Buy It, $10, for not just eye pain, but also migraine and headache relief.

If your photokeratitis doesn't resolve after these treatments, your eye doc may recommend bandage contact lenses, which help protect and moisturize your eyes while they heal, says Dr. Weisenberger. (Related: Everything You've Been Wondering About Lumify Eye Drops)

How to Prevent Sunburned Eyes

Making sure you have the right eye protection when you go outside is key. "UV-blocking sunglasses are the way to go," says Dr. Syed. "The fundamental cause of the problem is UV radiation, so blocking this radiation would protect the eyes."

When looking for a protective pair of sunglasses, it's important to make sure they block at least 99 percent of UV rays and have protection against UVA and UVB rays, notes Dr. Weisenberger. Carfia's Vintage Round Polarized Sunglasses (Buy It, $17, not only provide 100 percent UV protection, but they also have polarized lenses, which can further protect your eyes by reducing glare from extreme sunlight exposure that could damage your eye health. (See: The Cutest Polarized Sunglasses for Outdoor Workouts)

Wearing a hat to shield your eyes, and generally trying to avoid direct sunlight exposure as much as possible, may help as well, says Dr. Bunya. (Here are some of the best sun hats to protect your skin and your eyes.)

Bottom line: Photokeratitis may not be crazy common, but the condition is uncomfortable enough that you definitely don't want to risk it.