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COVID-19: Doctors warn UV lamps are burning people’s eyes

Who would have thought something that was meant to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 could also burn through our eyes? In a new paper, doctors report of several cases where people developed inflamed corneas due to ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure—thanks to those UV lamps being used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Inadvertent exposure to suprathreshold levels of UV light can unfortunately cause damage to the ocular surface,” wrote the doctors of the paper.

Getting photokeratitis is similar to your skin getting a sunburn, but for your eyes. The cornea absorbs virtually all UV-C rays—which is the shorter and more damaging end of the ultraviolet spectrum.

Symptoms of photokeratitis include “variable levels of pain and photosensitivity”—from mild superficial punctate keratitis and feeling like there was something stuck in their eyes to severe total epithelial desquamation. According to the doctors, there were seven cases in which people developed photokeratitis several hours after exposure to UV lamps.

Slit-lamp photography of both eyes of one patient who developed inflamed corneas after exposure to a UV lamp.
Source: Gizmodo

Fortunately, their symptoms were short-lasting following treatment, which includes lubricating eye drops, antibiotics, and steroids. Most recover within two or three days.

But, does UV light actually help during the pandemic?

“UVC has been used for years, it’s not new,” said Indermeet Kohli, a physicist in dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

However, it takes the right kind of UV in the right dosage—a complex operation that is best administered by trained professionals. Many at-home UV-light devices claiming to kill the COVID-19 virus likely aren’t a safe bet. 

The WHO also warns against anyone who would opt for UV lamps to disinfect hands or other areas of the skin. They also remind readers that “UV radiation can cause skin irritation and damage your eyes”. Instead, you should opt for the good-old-fashioned soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub.

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“The authors caution all persons to avoid direct exposure to UV-C germicidal lamps and follow manufacturer recommendations closely,” wrote the doctors.

If you’d like some tips on how to disinfect your phone, you can follow these instructions for Apple phones, or these for Samsung phones. Samsung also previously offered free UV-light sanitisation for all mobile devices free of charge—even non-Samsung phones. Just don’t forget to still be careful around UV-light.

Samsung has also introduced its UV Steriliser box with built-in wireless charging. It retails for RM299 and it was bundled for free during the Galaxy Note 20 pre-order.


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