Aug 23, 2017
Worried about your eyes after the eclipse? Here's what you should know
Despite all the warnings about looking at the eclipse without safety glasses, some may have been tempted to defy scientific advice and steal a peek. Don't feel bad — even the president of the United States did it.
But staring at the sun for even a short time without the right protection could have damaged your retinas permanently or caused a specific type of blindness called solar retinopathy, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
You were warned
There was plenty of advice in the run-up to the eclipse about the dangers of looking at it directly. As The New York Times reported on Monday, humans cannot see infrared light coming from the sun, but it can cause damage that won't heal. And there are no pain receptors in the retina, so you would not have even felt the damage occurring.
The damage is not literally a burn — but the light stimulation on the eye induces chemical changes that are damaging, said Dr. Stanley Chang, a professor of ophthalmology at Columbia University.
So if you did not make a proper pinhole projector, use specially designed glasses that complied with international safety standards, or even don a welders' helmet, you might be noticing some changes to your vision.
Symptoms to watch for
The extent of eye damage depends on how long someone stares at the sun — though even a few seconds could be destructive. If you glanced at the eclipse and then looked away, then back again, that could have caused problems because the effects are cumulative, said Dr. Jack Cioffi, the chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at Columbia University.
"Less than a few seconds, it is highly unlikely there is going to be much damage," he said.
Some of the symptoms to look out for are blurriness, a blind spot in your central vision, or a decrease in vision in which you notice an inability to read something you would have been able to read before the eclipse. It might also interfere with recognizing faces, or driving, said Dr. Geoffrey G. Emerson, who is on the safety committee of The American Society of Retina Specialists.
Another symptom is distortion — in which a straight line looks bent, or a door jamb looks curvy, Emerson said. You could look at a piece of graph paper, for example, and see whether the lines are wavy.
You might have all or some of these signs.
Damage from the eclipse is unlikely to cause pain, because the nerves that were damaged are light-sensing nerves, not pain nerves, Cioffi said. There is no burning sensation.
If there is damage, it might get better over several months but it is essentially irreversible. If you had 20/20 vision, Cioffi said, it could diminish to 20/40.
"There is no real therapy to be honest, but it can get better over one to six months," he said. "The retina repairs, to some extent, but the scar can be permanent. Some might still have a small focal blind spot and distortion."
Seek professional help
There are no real home remedies, and no evidence that steroids or anti-inflammatory drops will work, Cioffi said.
You should visit an ophthalmologist who will take a scan of the eye to see the extent of any damage, and who will inform you if there is a solar burn or something else, he said. The ophthalmologist can monitor your eyes over time to see if the field of damage is getting smaller.
If a hole has burned through the retina, surgery can help close it, but it does not necessarily improve the blind spot, Emerson said.
"Direct sunlight is too powerful for the retina," Emerson said. "You can burn a hole in the retina or you can kill cells in the retina, and when those cells die it leaves an empty space, and unfortunately those cells don't grow back."
"If people are worried or wondering, I would encourage them to see a retina specialist," he said, to "confirm whether or not they have solar retinopathy and also talk about prognosis with them."
Retina specialists are on alert
At his practice in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Emerson was no busier than usual. But he was checking the website of The American Society of Retina Specialists, which was on the lookout for reports of solar retinopathy caused by the eclipse from doctors around the country. There were none — at least before noon.
"Typically other retina doctors who see an adverse event, they report it," he said.
Reports of solar retinopathy are common among patients who are on drugs or have psychiatric problems because they often stare at the sun, even when it hurts. There are also work-related causes.
"I had a patient who was a lumberjack who got solar retinopathy," Emerson said. "He was looking up through the trees while he was working, but he must have been looking at the sun more than he realized, unfortunately."
Emerson and his children watched the eclipse from a cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, using the safety glasses and a pinhole projector. Around them, at least three groups of other people were also watching, and from what he could see, they were all protecting their eyes.
"I feel like the word must have gotten out," he said.
by Christine Hauser