Most of us can’t stare at the bright sun for too long. Our sensitive eyes begin to burn, and we instinctively blink and look away to avoid discomfort.
During a solar eclipse — when the moon temporarily blocks light from the sun — staring at the sun becomes a lot easier. But that doesn’t mean you should be doing it. Staring directly at the sun for even just a few seconds can cause serious eye damage.
Read on to learn about the risks of staring at the sun and what to do if you think you’ve already hurt your eyes.
What happens when you stare at the sun for too long?
When ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun enters the eye, it’s focused through the lens of the eye and onto the retina at the back of the eye. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue lining the inner surface of the eye.
Once absorbed into the retina, the UV rays result in the formation of free radicals. These free radicals start to oxidize the surrounding tissues. They ultimately destroy the rod and cone photoreceptors in the retina. The oxidative damage is referred to as solar or photic retinopathy.
Damage can occur in as little as a few seconds of staring directly at the sun.
What are the symptoms of eye damage from staring at the sun?
Despite all of the warnings, some people may still take a glance at the sun during an eclipse. What most people don’t realize is that you won’t feel any eye pain while the damage is occurring.
In most cases, you probably won’t even notice symptoms or vision changes right away, either. It can take up to 12 hours for you to start having symptoms. Symptoms of solar retinopathy can occur in just one eye, but most cases occur in both eyes at the same time.
For mild cases of photic retinopathy, you might experience the following symptoms:
- watery eyes
- discomfort looking at bright lights
- eye soreness
The following symptoms might occur in more serious cases:
- blurred vision
- decreased color vision
- difficulty discerning shapes
- distorted vision
- a blind spot or multiple blind spots in the center of your vision
- permanent eye damage
When to see an eye doctor
If you experience any of the symptoms of solar retinopathy several hours or the day after staring at the sun, see your eye doctor for an assessment.
If your eye doctor believes you have solar retinopathy, you’ll likely have additional testing completed to fully assess any damage on the retina.
During your appointment, your eye doctor may use one or more imaging techniques to look at your eyes, including:
- fundus autofluorescence (FAF)
- fluorescein angiography (FA)
- multifocal electroretinography (mfERG)
- optical coherence tomography (OCT)
Treating eye damage
There’s no standard treatment for solar retinopathy. Recovery is mostly about waiting it out. Symptoms will most likely improve over time, but it can take anywhere from one month to a year to fully recover. Some people may never fully recover their vision.
Antioxidant supplements may be helpful during the recovery period, but the use of antioxidants for treatment hasn’t been studied.
Recovery will depend on the extent of the eye damage. While some people with solar retinopathy can make a full recovery over time, severe damage from solar retinopathy can cause permanent loss of vision.
Preventing damage to your eyes
Since there are no effective treatments available for reversing solar retinopathy, prevention is very important.
On sunny days, make sure to wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. People who participate in water sports, like surfing, should also wear eye protection that blocks 100 percent of the UV rays from the water. It’s important that your sunglasses protect your eyes from both UVA and UVB light.
Children are at a particular high risk of solar retinopathy. Younger eyes may transmit more light to the retina. Children may also not fully understand the consequences of staring at the sun for too long. If you have kids, make sure you make it clear that they shouldn’t stare directly at the sun. Encourage them to wear a hat and sunglasses when outdoors.
During a solar eclipse
It may be tempting, but you should never look at the sun directly during a solar eclipse without proper eye protection. The American Astronomical Society provides a long list of approved eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers.
If you know a solar eclipse will be viewable in your area, consider grabbing a pair of solar eclipse glasses as soon as possible. As the eclipse date nears, the glasses may be harder to find. Free eclipse glasses are often available at your local library prior to an eclipse event.
Never view the sun through binoculars, regular sunglasses, a telescope, or a camera lens. Viewing the sun through a telescope or binoculars, which magnify the sun’s rays, has been shown to cause the worst damage.
It’s also not recommended to try to view a solar eclipse through your smartphone camera’s “selfie” mode. You’re very likely to accidentally look at the sun while you line up your camera. You could also damage your phone.
Avoid using recreational drugs during a solar eclipse event. People under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, like LSD, have been known to find themselves mesmerized by the eclipse and unable to look away.
The bottom line
While the sun sustains our lives, it’s very important that you don’t stare at it directly, even during a total or partial eclipse. While you might not feel any pain or sense any damage as you gaze at the sun, the risk of damage to your eyes is high.