So, You Looked At The Eclipse Without Glasses. Are Your Eyes Doomed?

So, You Looked At The Eclipse Without Glasses. Are Your Eyes Doomed?

On Monday, millions of people across the United States, Mexico and Canada witnessed a partial or total solar eclipse. And based on photos alone, at least some people did it without protective eyewear.

Maybe you forgot your eclipse glasses and could not resist a peek up at the sun. Maybe you thought you could safely watch the phenomenon for just a few seconds. Either way, there can now be concerning consequences.

Staring at the sun during an eclipse can cause irrevocable eye damage. It is only safe to look up with your eyes uncovered during the brief time when the moon completely blocks the sun during a solar eclipse, according to NASA. Outside of that short period, looking at the eclipse can damage your retinal cells.

Benjamin Bert, an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, compared this kind of retinal damage to what happens when you hold a magnifying glass over paper on a sunny day and the paper burns.

“Our eye is designed in such a way that all of the light is focused to one spot in the retina,” Bert said. “And so if you have all of that energy focused there, you’re basically trying to set your retina on fire.”

It’s common for people who looked at the eclipse to be more worried, he said. “Each time that there’s been an eclipse, we see kind of an uptick in emergency appointments.”

But before you panic, learn what eclipse eye damage usually looks like.

How to tell if you damaged your eyes because of the eclipse

If you glanced at the eclipse directly without appropriate protective eyewear, should you be worried? Not necessarily.

“There is only cause for concern if new visual symptoms are occurring,” said Jill Beyer, an optometrist and a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine.

You can start noticing symptoms within a few hours or a few days. The exact timing before you’ll notice the damage can vary, because it depends on how long you looked at the sun.

“If you have a burn in the retina, that’s going to be pretty immediate, pretty noticeable,” Bert said. But if you just looked long enough for your eyes to experience inflammation, “then that can have a domino effect that can perpetuate further damage. And that’s why it may take a little bit of time before the full extent is really noted,” he added.

Pay attention to whether your vision is getting worse in the hours since the eclipse. But don’t expect your eyes to hurt. As the American Academy of Ophthalmology explains on its website: “Damage from the eclipse is unlikely to cause pain or discomfort in your eyes because the retina does not have any pain nerves.”

Bert said the primary sign of eclipse-related eye damage is going to be one spot of your vision that starts malfunctioning. He gave the example of moving your eye around and noticing that a dark spot stays in exactly the same location, no matter where you move your head.

Take action if you also notice any changes like blurriness or distortion. Look at something that should have a straight line like a doorframe. If “all of a sudden you see that it has a distortion or a curve in it, that would be concerning of more serious damage,” Bert said.

Beyer cited a blind spot or dark spots, distorted or blurred vision, changes in color vision, or pain with excessive tearing as signs that it is best to schedule an appointment with an eye doctor.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology also states that headaches and increased light sensitivity are other symptoms of eclipse-related eye damage.

What solar retinopathy looks like

In the most extreme cases, staring at the sun may damage your eyes for good. Solar retinopathy is a rare but significant form of retinal injury that occurs after directly looking at the sun. It’s a permanent condition with no treatment.

In 2017, a New York City woman named Nia Payne looked directly at the solar eclipse for a few seconds with her bare eyes and then looked at the eclipse for around 20 seconds using borrowed eclipse glasses that were not legitimate protective eyewear. The next day, Payne reported blurry vision in both eyes and seeing only black in her left eye’s center.

Researchers later discovered that she had burned a hole in her retinas and believe that the glasses she used were not up to international safety standards. Payne got diagnosed with solar retinopathy. Her case was detailed in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology.

The good news is that the clarity or sharpness of vision can improve even if you do get solar retinopathy. “A lot of the acuity does come back,” Bert said. “But the unfortunate thing is people are usually left with little blind spots, or that distortion. And those are the components that can be permanent.“

So if your eyes feel weird after the eclipse, don’t ignore it. If you go to an eye specialist, they ideally will take a specialized picture of the macula and look at the different layers of the retina, so you can know for sure if you got solar retinopathy, Bert said.

“You can have peace of mind knowing if there is any kind of structural or anatomic changes that have occurred,” Bert said. “And it’ll give an idea of any possibility for recovery if there are signs of damage being present.”

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