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Corneal flash burns

Corneal flash burns overview

Eyes, particularly the cornea (the clear window of tissue on the front of the eyeball), can be damaged easily by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and from other sources of ultraviolet light such as a welder’s arc, a photographer’s flood lamps, a sun lamp or even a halogen desk lamp.  

The cornea takes the brunt of the damage if proper eye protection is not worn such as dark glasses or goggles while skiing in bright sun. A corneal flash burn (also called ultraviolet keratitis) can be considered to be a sunburn of the eye surface.

  • The cornea covers the iris (the coloured part of the eye), focuses light on the retina and protects deeper structures of the eye by acting like a windscreen to the eye. The corneal surface consists of cells similar to those in the skin. The cornea is normally clear.
  • Corneal damage from a corneal flash burn or from a disease may cause pain, changes in vision or loss of vision.

Corneal flash burns causes

Radiation damage to the cornea leading to a flash burn can be caused by ultraviolet light from various sources:

  • Sunlamp in tanning salon
  • Reflection of the sun off the snow at high elevation (snow blindness)
  • Photographer’s flood lamp
  • Lightning that strikes close to you
  • Halogen lamp
  • Welding torch
  • Direct sunlight
  • Solar eclipse
  • Reflection of sunlight off water

Corneal flash burns symptoms

Any time from three to 12 hours after overexposure to ultraviolet light, you may begin to notice symptoms:

  • Pain that can be mild to very severe

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Light sensitivity
  • Excessive tearing (watery eyes)
  • Blurry vision
  • Sensation of a foreign body in the eye

In most cases both eyes are involved, although the symptoms may be worse in the eye that received more ultraviolet radiation. This is very different from a corneal abrasion due to an injury where, ordinarily, only one eye is involved.

When to seek medical care

Because the eyes are very sensitive to disease and damage, any blurred vision, change in vision or worsening eye pain needs to be evaluated by an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specialises in eye care and surgery) or another eye care professional.

If you are unable to discuss your situation with a GP or an eye specialist and you have changes in your vision, have blurry vision, see flashing spots or light, or have worsening eye pain or pain with the movement of your eyes, then go to a hospital’s accident and emergency for an evaluation.

Questions to ask the doctor

  • Have you found a reason for my symptoms? 
  • Will I develop any scarring or permanent visual loss from a corneal flash burn?
  • Is there anything I should do to prevent this injury from happening again?
  • What can I expect to feel once the numbing eye drops have worn off?
  • When may I resume my regular activities?

 

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