Our eyes — a complex optical system that detects and translates light into vision — deserve thoughtful care and daily protection. Ensuring that your eyes are performing optimally involves both eye health and refractive examinations, as well as practical safety measures during risky activities and daily life.

Everyone should get a baseline eye-disease screening at 40 years old. Treatable eye diseases such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts can be diagnosed and monitored with regular screening.

Refractive eye exams ensure you are wearing the correct prescription strength of glasses or contact lenses for both distance and near-vision. Having underpowered or overpowered lenses may cause headaches or eyestrain. Other common issues include night myopia, where a nearsighted person sees better during the day than at night or in dark conditions. This can require a mild nighttime glasses prescription. 

Many people will also experience presbyopia, a gradual change in the lens as you age, making it more difficult to read. Most people start to notice this change in their early 40s. A pair of over-the-counter reading glasses or bifocals easily brings up-close objects into focus. 

Alternatives to glasses include contact lenses and refractive eye surgery. Be wary of contact lenses designed for continuous monthly wear, even if FDA-approved. Your eye obtains oxygen and nutrients from its tear film, and extended-wear lenses deprive the eyes of these nutrients. Sleeping in contact lenses can lead to severe infections and cornea scarring.

Refractive surgery options (like LASIK and PRK) reshape the cornea and can correct nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism to decrease your dependency on glasses or contact lenses. To help ensure a good outcome, you must first pass a thorough screening process. 

No pain, no gain? 

Any prolonged use of our eyes, such as reading or computer usage, won’t cause permanent damage but can make our eyes dry and tired. During concentrated use, we blink half as often as the normal rate (18 times a minute). Blinking helps spread the tear film, giving our eyes much-needed breaks. Focusing up-close for long periods also contributes to eyestrain. 

To lessen discomfort, take regular computer breaks every 20 minutes, remind yourself to blink more often and use over-the-counter artificial tears — but avoid brands that say “get the red out.” A screen filter to reduce glare may also help.

The eye is extremely vulnerable to physical and chemical-splash injuries. Use protective eyewear whenever you work with hazardous chemicals (like paint) or small particles (dust, wood chips and metal bits). Eyewear for home use can be found at hardware stores and should be marked “ANSI Z87.1” (approval from the American National Standards Institute). 

Also protect the eyes for sports, especially for children. Devices vary from eye protectors for racket sports to face guards for hockey and high-impact-resistant devices for skiing. Learn more through the American Academy of Ophthalmology (www.geteyesmart.org). 

A sunny outlook

Daily sun exposure without eye protection can lead to cataracts and growths on the eyes, including cancer. Hats and proper sunglasses are recommended to help block ultraviolet (UV) rays. 

While we do not see a lot of sun in Seattle during the winter, proper sunglasses (or goggles) are particularly important for high-altitude winter sports like skiing, climbing and snowshoeing. Even if there is cloud cover, the glare on ice or snow can hurt your eyes. 

Sunglasses are, of course, important in the summer, as well, especially for outdoor water sports. 

Lens darkness and color do not play a role in UV blocking: UV protection requires special treatments to the lenses and should be labeled accordingly. Look for glasses with UV absorption of 99 percent and higher (or “up to 400nm”). Some contact lenses offer UV protection, as well. Although polarized glasses decrease glare, they do not block UV light by themselves.

Extremely intense light (during a solar eclipse, tanning beds, snowfields and welding) requires special eye protection beyond everyday sunglasses. It should block out light from all directions. Without adequate protection, painful damage to the cornea or permanent retinal damage can occur.

Invest in your future by protecting your eyes properly, getting regular exams and making healthy lifestyle choices. Although all eyes age and eventually develop issues, many are, fortunately, treatable. With good eye care, patients in their 80s and 90s can have 20/20 vision.  

MAYLON HSU, M.D., practices ophthalmology at Pacific Medical Centers (www.PacMed.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.