What is photokeratitis?

A painful eye condition that occurs when you’re exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays either from the sun or from a man-made source.

Photokeratitis is similar to having a sunburned eye. This condition affects the surface layer of the cornea which is thin and the conjunctiva, which is the cell layer covering the whites of the eye.

What causes photokeratitis?

Ultraviolet rays, with sunlight being the main source, cause damage to the eye leading to photokeratitis.

Photokeratitis can be caused by sun reflection from surfaces such as water, ice, sand, and snow. Staring at the sun or watching a solar eclipse without using safety devices may also cause this condition or a burn to the retina, which is more serious and may be permanent if compared to corneal damage.

Ultraviolet light other than the sun can come from tanning lamps and tanning beds.

Snow blindness is a common form of photokeratitis caused by UV rays reflected off the surface of snow or ice, it is most common in the North and South Pole areas or in mountainous regions where the air is thinner and provides less protection. Snow blindness could be the freezing of the cornea’s surface or the opposite, severe drying of the corneal surface from very dry air. Skiing and mountain climbing are commonly associated with this condition.

Eye protection can prevent damage from UV rays to the eyes.

What are the symptoms of photokeratitis?

Photokeratitis is not usually noticed until the damage has occurred. Symptoms include:

  • pain
  • redness
  • blurriness
  • tearing
  • gritty feeling
  • swelling
  • sensitivity to light
  • headache
  • seeing halos
  • small pupils
  • eyelid twitching

Rarely, you may experience temporary color changes or vision loss.

The longer you are exposed to UV rays, the worse your symptoms may be.

How is photokeratitis diagnosed?

Photokeratitis can be diagnosed when a doctor consults about your recent activity or when he or she examines yours eyes. 

How is photokeratitis treated?

Photokeratitis usually disappears on its own, so treatment is focused on relieving your symptoms as your eyes heal.

If you think you may have photokeratitis and wear contact lenses, remove them immediately. Remove yourself from the sun and stay in the dark. 

For temporary relief, you can:

  • place a cold washcloth over your closed eyes
  • use artificial tears
  • take pain relievers as recommended by your eye doctor
  • use eye drop antibiotics if prescribed

Avoid rubbing your eyes until you heal. Healing is gradual and symptoms should be gone in a day or two.

Photokeratitis prevention

Wear eye protection that blocks UV radiation such as sunglasses that block 99 percent of UV rays, snow goggles with UV protection or helmets to prevent Photokeratitis.


Photokeratitis is basically a sunburn of the eyes. It occurs when your eyes are exposed to UV rays from the sun or from an artificial source. Snow blindness also considered photokeratitis from UV rays bouncing off ice or snow. Symptoms of this condition can include pain, redness, and sensitivity to light. Within a few days, Photokeratitis usually goes away. While your eyes get better, avoid wearing contact lenses. Artificial tears, pain relievers, or a cold compress are all tips for easing the pain that comes with photokeratitis.