Summer is the time for outdoor fun – and all the health risks that go with exposure to the sun. And we’re not talking about sunburn. According to Barry Thienes, president of the Canadian Association of Optometrists and an optometrist in Shaunavon, Sask., summer carries its own set of eye-health challenges.

The long days and more direct rays of the summer months can translate into overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can accelerate the development of eye problems such as cataracts, degeneration of the cornea and abnormal growths on the eye’s surface.

So, Thienes says, choosing your sunglasses with care is critical. Buying shades can be complicated, as they can range from dollar-store cheap to designer sunnies in the $500-plus range.

The key, according to Thienes, is to choose shades with sufficient UV protection, which means they block out almost all of UVA and UVB radiation, while screening out 75%-90% of visible light. While all glasses affixed with the UV stickers in Canada would have been tested properly (Thienes is not certain about glasses purchased online), the label is not the only indication that the glasses are top-tier. The optical quality of the lenses also is important. The cheaper the shades, he says, the more likely you’ll find imperfections, which can lead to eye strain and irritation.

“Wear a good pair” of shades

Thienes recommends spending about $50 on a pair of sunglasses. “Once you wear a good pair, you won’t ever go back,” he says.

A few years ago, Thienes ran a promotion at his office with a designer sunglasses company, in which patients were encouraged to “test drive” the company’s top-tier sunglasses for a few days before making a purchase. Sure enough, many patients ended up converting to the better glasses, simply because they are far more comfortable, Thienes says: “Your eyes will love you for it.”

While the sun may be the most obvious and challenging eye-health issue in the summer, seasonal allergies also can wreak havoc on your eyes. In fact, for many Canadians, red, itchy, watering eyes is one of the first signs that summer has arrived, Thienes says. This reaction of the eyes, while annoying, is actually a good sign: it shows that your histamine system is working well to flush out the allergens that your body wants to reject. Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to help you deal with these uncomfortable symptoms. Some medications come in the form of drops specifically for the eyes. Other meds are taken orally, and can address other allergy symptoms. If you experience these symptoms, Thienes recommends consulting your family doctor and an optometrist to come up with the best solution.

ARED supplements

Cataracts and macular degeneration are both age-related conditions of the eye. They can be accelerated by factors such as improper nutrition, smoking and sun exposure. Thienes and other optometrists recommend specific supplements to anyone who seems to be experiencing an early onset of these conditions and to patients who have a family history that indicates either condition may be an issue.

These supplements consist mainly of antioxidant vitamins and minerals – including vitamins A, E and C, as well as zinc, lutein and omega-3 – in higher doses than would be in a typical multivitamin. These supplements are known colloquially as AREDs (from the Age-Related Eye Disease studies conducted by the National Eye Institute in the U.S.). Clinical studies have indicated that the ARED formulas work, reducing the rate of advanced macular degeneration in people of high risk by about 25% over six years.

All your physicians must know when you are taking an ARED supplement, however, as it can affect other areas of your health. For example, copper often is added to ARED formulas to combat the copper-leaching properties of zinc. This balancing act must be monitored, especially for vegetarians, who often lack the protein requirements to bind the zinc properly to keep zinc and copper in balance in your body.

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