An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Summer Eye Safety

Safety glasses, sunglasses help protect vision

Eduardo Ortiz didn’t think twice when friends started shooting off fireworks. After all, he was 25 feet or so away and thought he was at a safe distance. Yet minutes later, an errant rocket would rob the Texan of the vision in his left eye. 

Many of the summer outdoor activities we look forward to such as watching fireworks displays, diving in a pool or just being out in the sun for hours on end can lead to vision problems. 

Not all problems are preventable. But, you can reduce your risk of vision loss by wearing safety glasses that can block tiny projectiles kicked up by lawn trimmers and wearing sunglasses that block harmful ultraviolet light. Contact lens users need to remove them before swimming. 

Your eyes are your window to the world and facilitate learning as well as the appreciation of nature and art. They are critical to the performance of everyday tasks and are sensitive enough to detect light emanating from faraway stars. 

Robert Feldman, M.D., the Richard S. Ruiz, M.D., Distinguished University Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School, says many of the eye injuries he sees during the summer months fall into three categories: the traumatic injuries caused by debris striking eyes; infections tied to people swimming with their soft contacts on; and the routine wear and tear of bright sunlight on the eyes. 

Traumatic injuries 

Fireworks are synonymous with Fourth of July celebrations but they are dangerous nonetheless. Each Fourth, approximately 1,300 firework-related eye injuries occur, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO)

Ortiz, who was injured last year during a New Year’s celebration, was startled by the seriousness of the injury. “It didn’t hurt, and I didn’t think it was that bad,” recalls Ortiz, who was 36 at the time of the accident. “I told my friend I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.” 

However, the friend’s expression told a different story when he got a good look at Ortiz’s eye.  There was a piece of firework lodged in it and blood was on the hand Ortiz was using to cover the eye. The eye couldn’t be saved, and Ortiz now has a prosthetic eye in its place. “I’m getting used to it little by little,” says Ortiz, who is a store supervisor. 

Ortiz’s eye doctor, Gene Kim, M.D., who, like Feldman, is affiliated with UTHealth, the Robert Cizik Eye Clinic and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, says he treated “seven or eight” people for firework-related eye injuries just on New Year’s Eve alone. 

When it comes to fireworks, Kim’s advice is to stick to professional fireworks displays. However, if you feel compelled to set off a string of fireworks in an area where it’s legal, stop by a hardware store and pick up some safety glasses. 

Eye doctors or ophthalmologists recommend that every household have at least one pair of ANSI-approved protective eyewear. Polycarbonate glasses are especially strong. 

Kim says gardeners should wear safety glasses to shield their eyes from lawn trimmer debris. According to the AAO, only 35 percent of Americans wear protective eyewear during projects that could pose a threat to their eyes.

Also, fishermen have to be wary of who is behind them when casting for fear of striking someone with a hook or fishing weights, Kim says. The hook will often lodge in an eyelid and it is important to have it removed professionally. Removing the hook incorrectly can result in further eye or eyelid damage. 

Irritating infections 

You are not supposed to swim with your soft contacts on, but people do and the results often are not good. 

Kim likens contacts to that dirty sponge next to your sink. “Your soft contacts pick up chemicals and tiny bits of debris while you’re swimming. Every time you blink, you are irritating your eyes,” Kim says, adding that it is important to take contacts out as recommended and to keep them clean. 

So, how bad is it? “Your eyes turn red and are sensitive to light. And, you are talking about a rigorous treatment. Some patients have to take antibiotics every hour all night for weeks,” Kim says. “That means setting an alarm so you can get up at the right time throughout the night. Infections can result in permanent scarring on the cornea, and require corneal transplants to recover vision.” 

For less serious problems, to relieve irritated eyes, consider utilizing artificial tears, not anti-redness drops. 

Wear and tear 

It is particularly important for fishermen to wear sunglasses. Not only are they on a boat for half a day or more in bright sunlight, they get double the ultraviolet light exposure from the reflection coming off the water. Plus, the level of ultraviolet radiation is three times higher in the summer than the winter.

People who don’t protect their eyes from sunlight can increase their risk of cataracts, macular degeneration and both cancerous and non-cancerous growths on the eyes. 

Lauren Blieden, M.D., and other UTHealth eye doctors recommend that people going outdoors wear wraparound sunglasses that block the majority of UV light entering the eye. Don’t forget the broad-brimmed hat, and be sure to take care of the children, too. 

Moving forward 

While the loss of his left eye may make it difficult to play catch with his 7-year-old son, Eduardo Ortiz Jr., the elder Ortiz still has the vision necessary to watch his son play ball. 

“Other than getting a commercial driver’s license or being an airline pilot, Mr. Ortiz can do everything,” Kim says.

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