Welding eyes and snow blindness are actually two different names for one and the same condition. As the name suggests, welding eyes can form during welding, and snow blindness is common in the high mountains.
When the eyes are exposed to an abundance of “ultraviolet” light, the cornea (the transparent layer on the eyeball) can become irritated. This is referred to by the scientific name keratitis photoelectric. It is actually a light ‘burn’.
Symptoms of snow blindness and welding eyes
There is almost always a relationship with too much (ultraviolet) light. People with these complaints have almost always looked into a welding flame without protecting their eyes or have been exposed to bright (sun) light in some other way. There is a certain waiting period between exposure and complaints. This waiting time can vary between 30 minutes and 6 hours. After that, the complaints arise.
Several hours after exposure to excessive UV radiation, the burning and pain of the eyes start. Later on, extreme pain in the eyes develops and one is very sensitive to light with a tendency to squeeze the eyes. It almost always concerns both eyes.
See also, Pterygium eye disease
How do snow blindness and welding eyes develop?
This condition results from overexposure of the eyes to ultraviolet radiation. This ultraviolet radiation is, just like visible light, for example, part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Compared to visible light, UV radiation has a shorter wavelength and the photons (a type of light particles) have higher energy.
In all conditions resulting from too much electromagnetic radiation, this phenomenon generally occurs in those tissue layers where the radiation is absorbed. For example, the skin will burn if you sit in the sun for too long due to the UV light present and the cornea will be damaged in the same way. The total amount of radiation determines the severity of the condition. In other words, a short time in strong radiation is as serious as a long time in weak radiation.
The same condition can therefore develop in a few seconds as well as in a number of hours. The cornea absorbs radiation from the UV-B and UV-C regions. Especially at a certain wavelength (270 nm) a lot of irritation occurs that can lead to this condition.
Welding eyes can therefore even arise when someone has worked without protective glasses for a few seconds. Snow blindness occurs when one has been exposed to the sun’s rays for several hours. This can also arise in the water or in the desert. Especially the reflection of the radiation on ice, snow, or water surface can cause snow blindness. There is a greater radiation intensity at higher altitudes.
See also, Eye injury
Is it serious and what can you expect from it?
The serious symptoms will usually disappear spontaneously within 12 to 24 hours. After 48 hours, almost all complaints have disappeared. Referral to an ophthalmologist is only necessary when there is doubt about the diagnosis. After extreme exposure to UV radiation, it is possible that complaints of headache and a minor disturbance of the vision remain for several weeks.
When to go to the doctor?
If there may be dirt, dust, or another object in the eye, it is advisable to have this checked. Sometimes there can also be irritation of an eye due to a contact lens. In these cases, it is almost always one-sided. In principle, this condition will disappear by itself. Preferably, do not use anesthetic drops, as they delay healing.
What can you do about it yourself?
Once you have symptoms, there is little you can do to speed up healing. Preventing problems is the most important.
See also, Herpes simplex eye inflammation
General advice and precautions for Snow blindness
Beware of exposure to too much ultraviolet light. Especially the eyes are very vulnerable. Always wear goggles when welding and make sure to wear tightly fitting sunglasses when staying in the mountains.