Arc eye — also known as welder’s eye or welder’s flash — is a condition caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. It gets its name from one of the most common situations in which it occurs: i.e. unprotected exposure to bright flashes in welding environments.
Discover more about arc eye causes, symptoms and treatments and the importance of eye protection in metal fabrication and similar work settings.
Similar to sunburn, arc eye is a type of radiation burn to the cornea that is caused by short term exposure to intense UV light. Eye specialists refer to it as UV keratitis or photokeratitis, also known as snowblindness.
It can be caused by unprotected exposure to the bright flash from a welding arc (the classic example). Other causes of arc eye include exposure to strong halogen lamps, photographic flood lamps, lasers, germicidal and laboratory UV lights. Beyond workplace settings, UV keratitis can also be caused by looking directly at the sun, as well as bright sunlight reflected off snow and water (snowblindness).
The flashes that a welding arc generates are a form of UV radiation therefore if you or your employees use a welding arc without suitable protective eyewear* there’s a strong possibility of being exposed to too much UV radiation. This can cause superficial burning to the surface level of the cornea (the clear layer at the front of the eye) or similar damage to the eyelid.
With sunburn, you very often don’t know you’ve got it until long after you’ve come out of the sun. It’s a similar story with welder’s flash, with symptoms developing typically 3-10 hours after exposure.
Common arc eye symptoms include pain, teary eye(s), swelling, a gritty feeling in the eye, blurriness, sensitivity to bright light, eyelid twitching and headache. You are likely to experience pain, watering and sensitivity to light. Eyelid muscle spasms are also common, making it difficult to open the eye. In rare cases, there may be temporary vision loss or vision colour changes.
It can feel very painful, precisely because the cornea is so sensitive. The good news however is that a corneal flash burn usually clears up over 24-48 hours.
* Specsavers do not currently provide welder’s goggles, however, we do have a wide range of BS EN 166 compliant safety glasses.
It’s important to be aware that arc eye symptoms generally only become obvious a few hours after the flash exposure, so it might not be easy at first to realise the root of the cause.
If you do start to experience arc eye symptoms, try holding a cold compress over the affected eye(s). If there’s no improvement after 30 minutes or so, telephone 111 or your GP, or contact your local minor injuries or Accident and Emergency department.
If you need further treatment, it’s likely to involve an anaesthetic drop to ease the pain. You might also be given some drops or ointment to take over a few days to help the cornea heal. Paracetamol can also help with the pain (do not exceed the recommended dose).
Arc eye can be a painful — but thankfully usually short-lived — injury. Generally, flash blindness (or arc eye) will clear up over 24-48 hours.