Drugs and Cataract Risk

How Some Medications Leave You More Vulnerable to Eye Damage from the Sun

Just as some prescription and over-the-counter medications can leave your skin more photosensitive - that is, more susceptible to damage from the sun's ultraviolet rays - certain drugs may increase your risk of eye damage as well.

Despite the danger of future sun-related eye problems such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and even eye cancers like ocular melanoma, only about half of Americans are aware of the risk, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).  In 2014 the professional association of eye physicians and surgeons released a poll showing 49% of adults surveyed were either not aware or did not believe that some medications could leave them more vulnerable to eye damage from the sun.

Cataracts and aging:  The formation of cataracts - a progressive clouding of the lens of the eye - is a natural process as we age, according to Stephanie Marioneaux, an ophthalmologist and cornea specialist.

"Cataracts will develop in every human being who lives long enough," she explains.  "Typically, it's an aging change that occurs in everyone.  While certain risk factors like smoking, steroid use and family history play a role, cataracts are also linked to cumulative exposure from the sun and damage can happen that you're completely unaware of."

Indeed, Marioneaux warns that photosensitivity of the eyes doesn't mean the sun seems more bright when you're outdoors; rather, the eyes are more susceptible to invisible rays of damaging ultraviolet light.

Which drugs are photosensitizing?  According to a 2009 study published in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, there are more than 140 medications which are known to cause photosensitivity. 

The Skin Cancer Foundation of the US has compiled a list of drugs which may trigger sun sensitivity in its Photosensitivity Report. These include many prescription and over-the-counter drugs commonly used by older adults:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen or naproxen; often taken to relieve pain from arthritis
  • Antibiotics such as tetracyclines or quinolones (eg. Cipro)
  • Diuretics prescribed to lower blood pressure (eg Furosemide)
  • Certain antiarrhythmics, prescribed to regulate an irregular heartbeat
  • About a third of Americans take these medications regularly, according to the AAO.

How to protect your eyes from future damage:  If you are taking any photosensitizing medications, the most effective and easiest way to avoid future eye problems like cataracts and cancer is to wear sunglasses which offer broad-spectrum coverage.  That means the lenses are manufactured to absorb 100% of UVA and UVB rays, preventing the damaging ultraviolet light from hitting the lens, macula and retina within the eye.

"You can't tell just by looking at a pair of sunglasses whether they offer this protection," Marioneaux notes.  "The darkness and color of the lenses tell you nothing about the UV absorption; you have to look for it on the label."

Watch for "100% UV Protection", or "UV400", both of which describe broad-spectrum coverage, and wear your sunglasses even in overcast weather as UV light can pass through clouds.

Beyond wearing sunglasses, you can prevent UV damage to your eyes by also:

  • Avoiding looking at the sun
  • Wearing a wide-brimmed hat or visor
  • Checking with your doctor or pharmacist to see if your medications are photosensitizing

After all, says Marioneaux, protecting your eyes from the sun's rays is a known factor in preventing future eye problems.

"We still don't have that one lifestyle answer as to why some people get cataracts earlier or later," she says.  "We can't quantify the effect of UV light yet, but we still advise people to avoid full exposure and to wear 100% UV protection, not just to avoid cataracts - which are going to happen anyway - but for melanoma and age-related macular degeneration as well."

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Article Sources

  • Facts About Cataract. US National Institute of Health National Eye Institute Public Information Sheet. Accessed May 30, 2014.
  • Photosensitivity Report: Medications. Skin Cancer Foundation Public Information Sheet accessed May 30, 2014.
  • Verdel BM, Souverein PC, Meyboom RH, Kardaun SH, Leufkens HG, Egberts AC. "Risk of drug-induced photosensitivity: focus on spectroscopic and molecular characteristics.." Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf. 2009 Jul;18(7):602-9.