Sunburned Eyes: Symptoms, Treatment & How Long Sunburn Lasts Around Eyes

Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight without sunscreen is highly discouraged. Your skin can get sun-damaged, and in worst cases, develop even more serious complications.

But it is not just your skin that gets affected. Your eyes can also get damaged from prolonged exposure to direct sunlight.

  • Your eyes can get sunburned as a result of prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
  • This could cause a burning sensation and blurred vision.
  • The ultraviolet rays causing this kind of damage does not only come directly from the sun, but also from the reflection of sun rays from water and sand.

Here is an insight on the symptoms and treatment of sunburned eyes.

Dr. Michelle Calder-Cardwell, the owner and the lead optometrist at Urban Optiques Vision and Eyewear in Northville, MI. warns against not protecting your eyes especially in summer heat.

Most people will strive to protect the skin from sun rays and glare by applying sunscreen. What most people don’t realize is that, just like the skin, the eyes are also vulnerable to becoming sunburned.

Sunburn spots around eyes
Sunburn spots around eyes

It is common knowledge that the sun can do real damage to the unprotected skin. Ultraviolet rays from the sun are known to cause sunburn that actually changes DNA and puts you at risk for skin cancer. Sunburned eyes medically referred to as photokeratitis is a result of exposure to strong UV rays. Jeff Pettey M.D, director of the John A.

Moran eye center residency and Training program and chief of ophthalmology at the salt Lake VA medical center says that the exposure has to be for an hour without wearing protection.

Can your eyes get sunburned?             

The question most of us are asking is, can your eyes really get sunburned? The sclera, most often referred to as the white of eyes, is more vulnerable to sunburn most often in summer. Long hour exposure to the sun exposes the unprotected eyes, most specifically the whites of eyes to the dangerous Ultraviolet rays.

So yes, you can burn your eyeballs, more accurately your corneas if you spent long hours in the sun without eye protection. Anderson Cooper, the CNN host of the Anderson Cooper 360, say he had spent two hours on a boat in Portugal without sunglasses and ended up blind for 36 hours.

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Anderson Cooper said, “I wake up in the middle of the night and it feels like my eyes are on fire, my eyeballs, and I think oh maybe I have sand in my eyes or something. I douse my eyes with water.

Anyway, it turns out I have sunburned my eyeballs” at the end of the end, Anderson Cooper says he had no idea that it was possible to get sunburned in the waters.

Doctors said that it was clear Anderson Cooper had a case of photokeratitis. Also called snow blindness for most skiers, photokeratitis or ultraviolet keratitis is a painful eye condition caused by the exposure to insufficiently protected eyes to the ultraviolet rays from either natural such as intense sunlight or artificial

Photokeratitis is, therefore, a burn of the cornea, the clear front surface of the eye by ultraviolet B rays. The condition is also referred to as radiation keratitis.

This condition will often occur at high altitudes on highly reflective snow fields (snow blindness). Less often, it could happen with a solar eclipse. Sunburn can also occur with artificial sources of light, this will include the following:

  • Sun-tanning beds
  • A welder’s arc
  • Flash burn
  • Carbon arcs
  • Photographic flood lamps
  • Lightening
  • Electric sparks
  • Hydrogen desk lamps

Anne Summers, an ophthalmologist in Ridgeway, N, J.  and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology says even though the condition does not cause blindness, it can cause severe pain making it hard for those affected to even open their eyes.

Sunburn damage on the skin in most cases start a few hours after exposure to direct ray without wearing eye protection such as UV light protective sunglasses.


Symptoms of a sunburned eye are temporary and most resolve on their own within a day or two. The duration of the symptoms will have vary from person to person depending on how long the expose to the sun rays was. For symptoms lasting for more than 3 days, you will need to see your doctor as soon as possible.

Sunburned eyelids
Sunburned eyelids

With damaged eyes, you would expect to experience the following symptoms.

  • Glared and halos around lights, light is very crucial for vision, for you to see something, light has to bounce off that object and enter your eyes, light can, however, be the source of a visual problem sometimes. Halos are bright circles that surround a light source like headlight whereas glare is the light that enters your eyes and interferes with vision.
  • This can be very uncomfortable especially when trying to see in the too-bright light. Glares can hurt your vision, the scattered light inside the eye can make it hard for you to see a sharp image.
  • Eye pain apart from direct exposure to ultraviolet rays could also signal a serious eye condition. Other condition that could cause the pain include ocular rosacea, dry eyes, and blepharitis.
  • Burning sensation in eyes is a common symptom of inflammation inside the eye. Just as on the skin, long time exposure could cause such symptom on the eye. A severely sunburned eye as mentioned is a result of prolonged exposure to sun’s rays.
  • Severe headaches or head pain sometimes can be difficult to describe, however, some common symptoms will include throbbing, squeezing, constant, unrelenting or intermittent. The location may be in one part of the face or skull or generally involving the whole head.
  • A headache caused by the sunburn may arise spontaneously or sometimes associated with exercise or activity. A headache may also be acute onset or chronic in nature with episodes of increasing severity.
  • Sensitivity to light known as photophobia is an intolerance of light. With this kind of symptom, you are more likely to feel discomfort to a different source of light such as sunlight, fluorescent light, and incandescent light. Apart from the discomfort, you will also have the need to squint or close your eyes. These symptoms are likely to be accompanied by severe headaches.
  • Temporary loss of vision is considered sudden if it develops within a few minutes to a couple of days. A temporary vision loss may affect one or both eyes, it can also affect all or part of the field of vision. A loss of only a small field of vision may seem like blurred vision. For temporary loss, you are also most likely to develop eye pain depending on what the underlying cause of the loss is, in this case, sunburn
  • Blurred vision refers to the lack of sharpness of vision. It results from the inability to see fine detail. Apart from sunburn, a blurred vision may signal the presence of eye disease. It may also result from abnormalities such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, presbyopia or astigmatism.
  • A gritty feeling
  • Red eyes
  • Swollen eyes
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Constricted pupils
  • Temporary color changes in vision

It will take some time before your eyes recover completely from the above mentioned above, while waiting or the symptoms to clear, you will need to do the following:

  1. Avoid direct exposure to the sun by staying indoor, wear sunglasses when going out, they will help with increased sensitivity to the sun.
  2. You will also need to keep your eyes moisten by using preservative
  • Over the counter painkillers and anti-itching eye drop might help ease the severity of pain and itching
  1. Avoid rubbing your eyes with dirty hands as these worsen the symptoms
  2. For the time being, your will need to do away with contact lenses until the symptoms clear.
  3. A cold compress over the eyes using ice cubes can be so soothing from some of the above-mentioned symptoms.

How long does eye sunburn last?

Just like on skin, ultraviolet rays do not have a long-term effect on your eyes. Sunburned eyes do not last for long. Sunlight can, however, cause a slow deterioration of the cells in your eyes, this could lead to eye infection and diseases.

Common such condition includes age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. This is way most doctors and professional health care provider advice on limiting your exposure to both direct and reflected ultraviolet rays.

To prevent from such condition, you will need to protect your eyes against the said rays. The best way to do so is by wearing sunglass that protects a higher percentage of UV rays from penetrating your eyes. All wear a hat when out in direct sunlight. Since you skin is also at risk of sunburn, you could protect it by applying a sunscreen.

Not all sunglass protect against UV rays, have a specialist choose the ones that do, always make sure to wear them anytime you are outdoors. Wear the glass even on the cloudy day, this is because the rays can easily penetrate the clouds and cause damage to your skin and eyes.

The effects of sunburn on eyes are temporary. As mentioned, though the condition causes severe pain, it does not result in blindness.

Much like the sunburn on your skin, the cornea of the eyes is very similar to the top skin layer this is according to a New York dermatologist Deborah Sarnoff, who is also the senior vice president of the skin cancer foundation.

For healthy people, the cornea is very fast healing. Most people will recover from the symptoms in two to three days tops.

Protecting your eyes from UV light blocking sunglasses is the best way to avoid this kind of pains and also lower your long-term risk of developing cataracts and skin cancer on your eyelids. Wearing broad-brimmed hats even when the sun doesn’t seem very bright.


The symptoms can be painful and discomforting. When experiencing the above-mentioned symptoms when out in the sun for long, you need to seek immediate medical attention as fast as you can. Dr. Pettey says you might need antibiotics to prevent an infection which sometimes happens afterward.

When left untreated for long, an infected eye could result to permanent sight damage. An infection after a sunburn could cause the cornea to scar over and become opaque. A scar on the line of vision could affect your sight forever.

If you can avoid or treat the infection in time, the good news is that photokeratitis will clear on its own within a day or two. The bad news is that excessive exposure to the sun can lead to cataracts and eye or eyelid cancer.

To treat sunburned eyes, you will need to first have a doctor diagnose the problem by asking about your recent activities, examining your eyes or by using an eye drop with fluorescein dye to look for UV damage.

The treatment option likely to be recommended by your Ophthalmologist will depend on the severity of the symptoms, the extent of the damage depending on how long you were exposed to UV light and how severe the sunburn is.

The following can be used to treat sunburn below and around eyes.

  1. Keep eyes moisten with artificial tears

Artificial tears are one of the best treatment for dry eyes. Dry eyes syndrome is a chronic and typically progressive condition.

Depending on its cause and severity, it may not be completely curable. Keeping your eyes moisten with artificial tears may successfully manage some of the symptoms of eye damage from sun exposure.

Artificial tears may thus result in noticeably greater comfort, fewer dry eyes symptoms, and sometimes sharper vision as well.

  1. Using antibiotic eye drops

Mild cases of sunburned eyes can be managed with numbing and antibiotic eye-drops. It takes only a couple of days to recover.

Our bodies are very regenerative, with regenerative powers in both the top layer of the skin and the cornea. With time your body is able to replace the skin and cornea cells.

  1. Pain relievers

Over the counter pain medication may also offer relief for the pain caused by sunburn or photokeratitis. If the pain, however, becomes more severe or persist for more than 2 days, have a doctor diagnose the condition as soon as possible.

  1. Cold compress

Using ice cubes to apply a cold compress around the eye will also help relieve the pain, swelling, pain and irritation.

In itself, a cold compress is a combination of cryotherapy and static compression, the remedy is mostly used for treating pain and inflammation after an acute injury or surgical procedures.

A cold compress can also be used to relieve the symptoms of sunburned eyes.

  1. Lubricating eye drops

There are many brands of ocular lubricant available in drug stores. An ocular lubricant is a solution specially formulated to moisten the eyes. The solution can be used to relieve symptoms such as burning sensation and other discomfort caused by dry eyes.

  1. Anti-inflammatory eye drop

You could seek relief of symptoms such as inflammation and swelling by using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory eye drop. Have the eye drop prescribed to you by a professional health care provider.

  1. Boost your balanced diet

A recent Research from the National Institutes of Health and National Eye Institute has shown the power of certain nutrients in protecting eyes age-related and other causes of eye damage including sunburn.

Natural antioxidants found in dark, leafy greens vegetables like kales, and spinach and those from eggs are most recommended.

  1. Try some recommended nutritional supplements

If you are unable to access the nutrients in their natural form, you can use supplements.

  1. Schedule regular eye exams

You could avoid all this pain by simply protecting your eyes from direct and long-term exposure to Ultraviolet rays. To do this, you will need to:

  1. Avoid long hour exposure to direct sun rays, you could do this by wearing hat
  2. During long exposure to the sun, make sure you wear UV light blocking sunglasses. Eye experts at the University of Huston greatly stress the importance of wearing protective eyewear even on cloudy days. A good lesson is that off Anderson Copper which clearly shows that eyes can be damaged even when the sun hides behind the cloud.
  3. When having a sunburned eye and you wear contact lenses, you should remove them immediately, refrain from wearing them again until your eyes return to normal.
  4. Not all sunglasses protect against UV light. Be sure to wear the right sunglasses. Dr. Natasha Hertz, an ophthalmologist at Washington Adventist Hospital recommend wearing sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection.
  5. You also need to avoid regular exposure to direct sun rays. Regularly exposing your eyes to sun rays will have long-term effects including cataracts, skin and eye cancer, macular degeneration, benign eye growth and others.
  6. For maximum protection, you need to look for sunglasses, snow goggles or sports goggle that have side shields or a soft rubber flange that completely block sunlight from striking the front of your eyes from the sides, below or above the eye.
  7. When going out skiing, snowboarding, water sporting or anytime you plan to be outdoors for an extended period of time, make sure to not only wear quality sunglasses but also that feature a wrap-style frame to protect your eyes from indirect as well as direct sunlight.
  8. To prevent photokeratitis from artificial light such as welding light, make sure to use quality welding helmets.
  9. When unsure of how safe your sunglasses are in terms of blocking the UV rays, have them checked out by a professional eye care practitioner.


  1. Anderson Coopers sheds light on sunburned eyes:
  2. What to do when having a sunburned eye:
  3. Snow blindness how to prevent eye damage:
  4. Causes of photokeratitis:
  5. How to prevent eye damage:

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