Sun protection for children is almost a religion in this country. Walk past any lunchtime schoolyard and you'll see children wearing broad brimmed hats to shield their faces from the midday sun.
Yet few children wear sunglasses, despite research showing ultraviolet damage from the sun causes several eye conditions such as cataracts, age related macular degeneration, snow blindness (photokeratitis), eyelid cancers and growths on the eye (pterygium) which can invade the cornea and affect vision.
The problem is well known to Associate Professor Frank Martin, head of the department of ophthalmology at the children's hospital at Westmead.
"Damage can be done early and not show up until later in life, as with cataracts, but we are already seeing young children with tumours on the eye. I have seen changes from sun damage in children as young as three years old," he says.
Initially, sun damage is visible when blood vessels appear on the white of the eye closest to the nose, which can lead to pinguecula (superficial changes) and pterygium which can alter the shape of the cornea, causing astigmatism.
The primary cause of cataracts is sun damage and UV exposure has been found to contribute significantly to macular degeneration.
Marlin says children should be encouraged to wear sunglasses, particularly during summer, as well as a hat. With wider pupils and more sensitive ocular tissues, children's eyes are more susceptible to sun damage. If they are around water there's even more danger, since the sun reflects off the water and into the eye," he says.
Australian research by the department of ophthalmology at Prince of Wales Hospital showed 81 % of 12 to 15 year olds and 26% of 9 to 11 year olds had early sun damage detectable by ultraviolet fluorescence photography. In a cross sectional observational study of 71 children in Sydney between the ages of 3 and 15, a specialised UV camera detected sun damage.
It is believe the main cause is from light entering the eyes from the side this is typically reflected, scattered light. The eye then focuses light on to specific areas and this coincides with the location of particular diseases. We're often not aware of this exposure which is akin to being sunburnt under a beach umbrella.
Conventional sunglasses offer little side protection from scattered light, leaving the eye exposed. Yet they reduce glare from direct, visible light and may encourage wearers to increase both their eye and skin exposure.
A rule for sunglasses is to ensure the child's eye isn't visible from the side.
Wearing sunglasses regularly is the key to protecting eyes from as early an age as possible, as most UV exposure occurs during childhood. Children also tend to be outdoors quite a bit and evidence suggests that the eye's crystalline lens transmits more UV in children.
57% of parents involved in a study were likely to protect their own eyes with a hat or sunglasses, while only 32% of their kids did.
Research shows nearly 40% of light reaching our eyes is reflected from the ground and windows. Hats provide 50% protection, but wearing a hat and sunglasses gives 98 100% protection from UV radiation and both are essential for complete eye protection.
The Optometrists Association Australia says if you don't wear sunglasses as a child you double the chances of getting eye disease later in life.
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