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Summer sun safety: Contact lenses with UV protection

With the official arrival of summer, taking protective measures against the sun’s dangerous rays is essential. While many may think they’re prepared with sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses, doctors say there’s another must-have to add to the list: UV-blocking contact lenses.

Contact lenses with ultraviolet protection help reduce or eliminate the UV rays that would normally strike the naked eye, according to Dr. Karl Citek, professor of optometry at Pacific University College of Optometry, and member of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (FAAO).

While it’s common knowledge that UV rays can cause serious damage to the skin, many may not realize that they also pose major short and long term threats to eye health as well.

One of the most common effects is called photokeratitis – or a sunburn of the eye.

“It can be quite painful, with additional symptoms of itching or burning, a sandy or gritty feeling, and increased sensitivity to light,” Citek told FoxNews.com in an email. “It usually resolves within 24 to 48 hours, even with no treatment, but it is still best to see an eye care professional who can provide artificial tears or lubricants as well as antibiotics to reduce the risk of a secondary infection.”

Additionally, UV rays can cause long term damage to the eye. Sun exposure can cause cataracts, resulting in a clouding of the lens inside the eye, which severely reduces vision and can only be corrected with surgery, Citek said. It can also cause conditions like pinguecula, a raised bump on the sclera – the white outer wall of the eye – or pterygium, an abnormal growth of tissue from the sclera onto the cornea.

“Both conditions exacerbate dry eye problems with symptoms of burning, itching, sandy/gritty feeling, etc., and can make wearing contact lenses uncomfortable or impossible,” Citek said. “In addition, if a pterygium grows beyond the center of the cornea, it will reduce vision; it can only be removed surgically, but it has a tendency to grow back.”

Furthermore, sun exposure can lead to cancer in the eyeball and can also exacerbate age-related macular degeneration (AMD), resulting in severe vision loss, according to Citek.

Not all lenses offer UV protection, but those that do typically include a label on the box, and patients can also consult with their doctors.

The lenses, which are regulated by the FDA, come in two categories of protection: Class I blockers, recommended for high-exposure environments like the beach, block more than 90 percent of UVA rays and 99 percent of UVB rays. Class II blockers, recommended for everyday conditions, block 70 percent of UVA rays and 95 percent of UVB rays.

“Currently three major soft contact lens manufacturers offer at least one line of product that offers UV protection: Vistakon, with all Acuvue lenses; CibaVision, with PrecisionUV lenses; and Bausch & Lomb, with BioTrue ONEday lenses,” Citek said.

Brands are continuing to improve their offerings.  ACUVUE® recently released the 1-DAY TruEye® Brand Contact which claims to block out more than 96 percent of UVA rays and 99 percent of UVB rays that reach the lens.

“I think this is the best kept secret in the eye care arena,” Dr. Susan Resnick, a member of FAAO, and a paid consultant for ACUVUE® Brand Contact Lenses, told FoxNews.com.

However, while it may be tempting for UV-blocking lens wearers to leave the shades at home – doctors say that isn’t wise.

“Contact lens protection is never a standalone entity – it still needs to be used in conjunction with sunglasses and a broad-rimmed hat,” Resnick said.