Eclipse viewers should watch out for solar retinopathy, experts say

Brooke Eberle
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
With your solar glasses or a special viewer, watch for the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon passes over the sun, a stage that lasts for a few hours. (Dreamstime/TNS)

LA GRANGE, Ill. — A common myth is that people can go blind from one glance at a solar eclipse, but Dr. Elita Hohner, a family specialist from Amita Health Medical Group in La Grange, said that this is unlikely.

However, she did say that looking at the eclipse without protection could lead to solar retinopathy, which is the damage to the retina.

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“Basically what happens when you look at the sun during a solar eclipse is it burns the retina, which is that sensitive film across that back of your eyeball that takes in light and turns it into pictures that your brain can interpret,” Hohner said.

Dr. Spero Kinnas of Westchester Eye Surgeons also said that people need to know the proper safety methods for viewing it because the damage is usually permanent.

“It’s very dangerous because people underestimate the amount of solar radiation that can focus on their retina,” he said.

“Just a couple of degrees of heating up the retina is enough to damage some of those cells. So you can actually have permanent damage to the cells that help you see,” Hohner said.

Some of the symptoms of solar retinopathy are loss of visual acuity, blind spots, changes in color vision or distortion when looking at straight lines or grids.

It takes 30 to 60 seconds of staring at the eclipse to cause retinal damage. It is painless and a lot of the time people don’t realize they have it until they have problems with their vision, Hohner said.

Those viewing the solar eclipse are advised not use sunglasses because they are not protective enough, or binoculars because they actually magnify the heat.

Kinnas suggests using pinhole box method over the eclipse glasses, because he thinks the latter may not be safe.

“They do not guarantee solar retinopathy protection,” he said. “I have instructed my children not to look at it directly.”

Hohner noted it is difficult to test effectiveness of various methods.

“It is a gray area. It’s one of those areas where it’s hard to perform an ethical study where you know that there’s no chance of harm,” Hohner said.

To guarantee safety, Hohner recommended other methods of viewing the eclipse that do not require one to look directly at it.

“If was looking at the solar eclipse, I would use one of the pinhole methods like either looking through a pinhole viewer or projecting it through a telescope,” she said.

Hohner also warned that children and teens are the most likely to get solar retinopathy because their eyes haven’t matured all the way.

“If you think about it, kids are more likely to pull of their glasses and stare at the sun anyways,” she said.

The American Optometrist Association also recommends eclipse glasses that meet the international standard ISO 12312-2.

“You’re going to make sure your glasses are in good shape. If you see any scratches on them, if it seems like the coating is separating or peeling or if in any way the seem damaged, do not use them,” Hohner said.

Kathy Maren from Comb Eyecare also said that can the glasses can be tested to see if they are real by trying them on indoors. If nothing can be seen, then they work.

“I think that everyone should get out and see it. As a doctor, any chance that we have to get people, especially young people, interested in science, I am all about that,” Hohner said.