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Corneal flash burns

The clear front of the eyes, called the cornea, can be damaged by over exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and from other light sources, such as a welder’s arc or camera flash.

These injuries are called corneal flash burns or ultraviolet keratitis, and is like a form of sunburn to the surface of the eye.

Corneal flash burns can 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 department 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?

 

Examinations and tests

To make a diagnosis, the eye specialist or a doctor in the hospital’s accident and emergency department will take a history, examine your eyes and discuss recent exposure you may have had to ultraviolet light.  

  • Your eyelids, pupils, back of the eye and vision are checked.
  • The eye specialist will look at the surface of your eyes using special equipment, such as a slit lamp, made especially for examining the eye’s surface.
  • A numbing eye drop to allow your eye to be examined and a painless dye called fluorescein may be put on to your eye to aid in the examination. The stain temporarily makes your eye look yellow but goes away after a few minutes. A special blue light is then used to evaluate the stained eye to determine if corneal damage is present. A damaged cornea, coupled with a history of ultraviolet light exposure, confirms the diagnosis of radiation eye burns or corneal flash burns.

 

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