The light from the sun is essential for life, but too much of it can be problematic. Most people know enough to protect their skin from sun exposure to prevent skin cancer; the American Academy of Dermatology recommends broad-spectrum, waterproof sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or higher for exactly this purpose. But we sometimes forget the importance of safeguarding another important body part: our eyes.
Despite all of the official warnings to avert our eyes from the sun during the recent eclipse, a fair share of folks (including President Trump) just couldn’t resist the temptation to sneak a peek. If you happened to look up at the sun during the eclipse, you might be worried about the potential damage you may have sustained. Experts have weighed in on the subject to help people ascertain whether they need to seek medical attention.
According to Marilyn Gordon, medical director for UnitedHealthcare of New Jersey, looking directly at the sun for even a few seconds can cause serious damage, reports NJ.com.
“The sun is incredibly bright — some 400,000 times brighter than a full moon. For this reason, any amount of exposure can cause short-term and/or long-term damage,” says Gordon.
Whether there’s an eclipse or not, it’s never safe to look directly at the sun without eye protection — and during an eclipse, regular sunglasses won’t do. Glasses need to be compliant with ISO 12312-2, an international safety standard, which should be clearly written on the frames. But many vendors, including Amazon, had to recall eyeglasses after consumers questioned whether the glasses they purchased were truly compliant. Official vendors have to print their name and address on the packaging or on the glasses themselves and supply instructions and warnings. Consumers are encouraged to double-check NASA’s list of reputable vendors or conduct a quick Google search. And if glasses are scratched or damaged in any way, they won’t do their job.
But if you didn’t bother with the special glasses and decided to look anyway, how can you know if you might have sustained permanent damage? Many experts caution that it’s possible to not experience immediate symptoms, especially since there are no pain receptors in the retina. However, an individual might experience light sensitivity, pain, or loss of vision in one or both eyes in a matter of days or weeks.
In the 24 hours following a viewing, pain and light sensitivity might indicate solar keratitis, says Marilyn Gordon. She says it’s similar to getting a sunburn on your cornea. Blurred vision, discolored spots, or loss of vision toward the center of the eye could indicate solar retinopathy, which occurs when the sun burns a literal hole in the retinal tissues. This vision loss could last months or become permanent. While this doesn’t mean that person would necessarily go completely blind, Dr. Christopher Quinn, president of the American Optometric Association, told Business Insider, they’d likely lose their fine vision.
It is possible to feel some eye discomfort even after viewing an eclipse with certified safety glasses. This discomfort is typically temporary and can be attributed to rapidly changing light exposure levels (which happens when you put on and take off the glasses to look at the eclipse).
However, if you or someone you know has viewed the eclipse without proper protection (or used protection but are experiencing changes in vision or general discomfort), it’s important to make an appointment with an eye care professional immediately. While skin sunspots may not show up for years after the damage has occurred — most people notice sunspots when they’re in their 30s and 40s — dark spots on your eyes will be a lot more obvious (and more debilitating). Don’t wait to seek out medical attention if you dared to view the eclipse under these conditions.