Health Effects of Ultraviolet Radiation
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is released by the sun and by artificial sources such as tanning beds and sun lamps. This fact sheet provides information about the major health problems associated with overexposure to UV radiation. Both the beneficial and harmful effects of sunlight result from the same radiation and, therefore, it is very important to understand the risks incurred by overexposure.
Harmful Effects of UV Radiation on the Eyes
- Cataracts: a disorder in which the lens of the eye loses transparency resulting in impaired vision. Older adults are at greater risk of cataracts which are a major cause of blindness
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): a disease associated with aging in which there is deterioration of the macula; the latter is a central region of the retina that allows us to see fine details as required for reading, driving and recognizing faces. Overexposure to UV may contribute to the onset of AMD although it is not the primary cause.
- Snow Blindness (Photokeratitis): a temporary disorder that occurs from overexposure to UV at the beach or in the snow. Symptoms include tearing, swollen eyelids, a feeling of sand in the eyes, hazy or decreased vision. Recovery is spontaneous, generally within a few days.
Harmful Effects of UV on the Skin
- Skin Cancer: This is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. Common skin cancers can be cured easily if detected early. Melanoma, a more dangerous form of skin cancer can generally be cured if detected early before it spreads to other sites in the body. Check your entire body (from scalp to soles of the feet) once a month for moles. If you notice changes in moles such as itching or bleeding or an appearance that differs from others, consult a physician.
- Premature Aging: Over time, exposure to the sun’s rays causes skin to thicken, wrinkle, develop dark spots and become leathery. Visible changes in the skin that are often thought to result from aging are actually caused by UV radiation.
Who is at Risk of UV Damage?
- Everyone, regardless of their coloring, is at risk of eye damage.
- People with fair skin, blue or green eyes, and blond or red hair are more liable to develop skin cancer.
- When melanomas develop in people whose skin is naturally dark, they generally appear on the palms, soles of the feet or under fingernails.
- People who have a family history of skin cancer, have previously suffered severe sunburn, or have a large number of moles are more likely to develop skin cancer upon exposure to UV radiation.
- Avoid overexposure; seek shade and limit time outdoors.
- Cover as much skin as possible with a wide-brim hat and tightly-woven clothing.
- Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
- Avoid tanning booths and sun lamps.
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY. Community-Based UV Risk Education: The Sunwise Program Handbook. http://nepis.epa.gov/Adobe/PDF/30004IQV.pdf (70 pp, 1.1MB)
CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION. Protect Yourself from the Sun. www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/
NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH. What You Need to Know about Skin Cancer. www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/skin
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