Can a Solar Eclipse Blind You? About Eye Damage


Can a Solar Eclipse Blind You

Viewing a solar eclipse is exciting, so it’s not uncommon to accidentally glance at the Sun or intentionally view it against safety advice. But, can a solar eclipse blind you? How do you know if you have eye damage and whether it’s temporary or permanent? Here’s what you need to know.

  • Yes, looking at the Sun during a solar eclipse can blind you.
  • Damage usually isn’t immediate, but shows up after several hours to a few days after looking at the Sun.
  • Schedule an eye exam if you suspect eye damage.
  • Symptoms include vision loss, but also blurring, changes in color perception, or distorted vision.
  • The blindness may be temporary or permanent. Usually, it affects your central vision or where you focus.
  • Most people recover within two months, although vision loss is permanent in severe cases.

How It Happens

There are a few different ways you can hurt your eyes during a solar eclipse. Remember, the only safe time to look directly at the Sun without protection is during totality of a total solar eclipse! The rest of the time, you need approved safety glasses or a solar filter. Using a welders helmet isn’t recommended, but works too. If you don’t have any of these, only view the Sun indirectly, like through a pinhole camera or the shadows on the ground. Viewing the Sun directly is never safe during a partial solar eclipse.

During a solar eclipse, lots of people are still looking at the Sun when it leaves totality and the edge of Sun starts peeking out (the “diamond ring effect”). As long as you look away immediately after this, you’re likely fine. But, if you start looking at the Sun too early before totality and watch too long after it ends, you risk damage. Sneaking a peak at the Sun close to totality is another common mistake.

Unfortunately, another common way people get eye damage and blindness from a solar eclipse is by using fake eclipse glasses. Some eclipse glasses sold online don’t meet safety specifications. You won’t know you had bad glasses until after the fact, when you notice symptoms. Also, using eclipse glasses from a past event is risky, because the protective film might have cracks or weak spots.

The biggest danger of permanent damage comes from viewing the Sun magnified through a camera or telescope. During the excitement, it’s easy to fall into the familiar pattern of looking through your viewfinder. Don’t do it! You should be using a solar filter anyway, but tape over any optics that you might look through, just in case. This type of eye damage is instantaneous and severe!

Symptoms of Eye Damage

So, how do you know if you hurt your eyes? If you have these symptoms of eye damage from viewing a solar eclipse, contact your eye doctor for an exam as soon as possible:

  • Watery eyes
  • Eyelid twitching
  • Color distortion
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • Headache
  • Eye pain
  • Blurred vision
  • Scotoma (a blind spot in your vision)
  • Metamorphopsia (straight lines look rounded)
  • Micropsia (objects appear smaller than they really are)

You might experience a headache, light sensitivity, and watery eyes from allergies or for other reasons, but blurred vision, blind spots, and visual distortion are symptoms of serious problems.

Types of Eye Damage From Viewing a Solar Eclipse

There are a few different types of eye damage that result from viewing the Sun without proper protection. The outcome depends how long you look at the Sun and the star’s position in the sky.

  • Photokeratitis (Sunburn of the Eye): This is basically a sunburn on the corneas of your eyes. It is painful and cause symptoms like red eyes, a gritty feeling in the eyes, extreme sensitivity to light, and excessive tearing. Most people recover with time.
  • Solar Retinopathy (Retinal Damage): This is damage to the retina, the part of the eye that senses light and sends images to your brain. Symptoms include loss of vision in the center of the eye, distorted vision, altered color vision, and difficulty discerning fine detail. Your eye doctor may see tiny crescent-shaped (eclipse-shaped) defects in your retina. Mostly, this damage comes from photochemical reactions, not heat. In severe cases, solar retinopathy results in permanent vision loss. The chances of recovery depend on the duration and intensity of the exposure.
  • Macular Edema (Swelling in the Retina): This is a swelling or thickening of the macula, the part of your retina responsible for detailed, central vision. Macular edema causes blurred or reduced vision and, in severe cases, lasting damage. The key to a good outcome is seeking treatment that reduces swelling.
  • Cataracts (Clouding of the Eye’s Lens): Prolonged exposure to the sun without protection accelerates the development of cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens that can blur vision. Cataracts develop over time. Minimize the damage by wearing UV-protective glasses whenever you’re outside (not just for solar eclipses).

How Long Does Damage Last? Is It Treatable?

For the most part, there aren’t treatments for eye damage caused by looking at a solar eclipse. If you burn your corneas or suffer edema, there are options for pain relief and reducing swelling. However, blindness from retinal damage isn’t treatable. That being said, your eye doctor can help you find ways of compensating for color distortion, blind spots, or other vision impairment. Also, some types of damage are cumulative, so seeking medical assistance protects your vision in the future.

As for how long vision problems last, it depends on the injury. Mild retinal damage or solar retinopathy often partially or fully resolves over time. That’s because the damage comes from photochemical reactions and isn’t a true burn. However, there are many reports of irreparable damage in one or both eyes. Often, this takes the form of small blind spots or changes in color perception. In other cases, a person’s eye glasses or contact prescription changes.

References

  • Dobson, R. (1999). “UK hospitals assess eye damage after solar eclipse.” BMJ. 319(7208):469. doi:10.1136/bmj.319.7208.469 
  • Kallmark, F.P.; Ygge, J. (2005). “Photo-induced foveal injury after viewing a solar eclipse.” Acta Ophthalmol Scand. 83(5):586-9. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0420.2005.00511.x
  • Mainster, Martin A; Turner, Patricia L. (2006). “Retinal Injuries from Light: Mechanisms, Hazards, and Prevention”. Retina (4th ed.). Elsevier Mosby.
  • Michaelides, M.; Rajendram, R.; Marshall, J.; Keightley, S. (2001). “Eclipse retinopathy.” Eye (Lond). 15(Pt 2):148-51. doi:10.1038/eye.2001.49
  • Sefić-Kasumović, S.; Firdus, H.; et al. (2000) “Ostećenja oka kod pomracenja sunca” [Eye injuries caused by an eclipse of the sun]. Med Arh. 54(1): 41-4. Croatian. PMID: 10872275.

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