Arc eye is a condition in which the outer layer of the eye is damaged due to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The condition gets its name from one of the most common causes of corneal burns: exposure to the bright electric arc created when welding metals. Arc eye can lead to pain and severely blurred vision. When burns are mild, symptoms tend to go away in a few days by flushing the eyes with water and using over-the-counter eye drops. Severe injuries should be assessed at the emergency room, however, so doctors can accurately diagnose the problem and provide the appropriate medical care.
Welders who do not wear proper eye protection and people who are in the vicinity of a welding project are at risk of developing arc eye. The UV radiation produced while welding is intense, and focusing on the arc for even a fraction of a second can lead to a corneal burn. Many other sources of UV light can also cause the condition, including the lamps used in tanning beds and very bright desk lights. In addition, extended exposure to sunlight can lead to burns, especially when the light is reflected by water or a snowy ski slope.
An individual may not notice eye pain or vision problems immediately following the injury. In most cases, symptoms develop about three to six hours after exposure. The eyes typically become itchy and bloodshot, and excessive tears may be produced. Vision may be spotty or blurry, and temporary blindness is possible without treatment. Permanent vision problems are possible with long-term exposure to UV radiation.
A person who experiences any possible symptoms of arc eye should splash water into his or her eyes to clean them out and seek medical care as soon as possible. An emergency room doctor can determine the severity of the condition by performing a careful physical examination. A patient with a mild case of arc eye is usually given eye drops or a topical ointment to ease pain and redness. The doctor may prescribe oral anti-inflammatory drugs to further relieve symptoms during recovery.
In most cases, vision returns to normal within two to three days of an injury. If symptoms persist for several days, an individual should schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist to receive a more thorough screening and diagnosis. In addition to providing care, the ophthalmologist can help the patient determine how to avoid eye injuries in the future. Wearing proper protection and averting the eyes when exposure to UV radiation is possible is usually enough to prevent serious eye problems.