You couldn’t resist. You wanted to peek at the total solar eclipse in real time, to see how much of the moon would cover the sun. You didn’t have the specific sunglasses guaranteed to block all of the sun’s dangerous radiation. Maybe you had the sunglasses you bought at the drugstore. And even if you didn’t have those, one peek wasn’t going hurt.
If you, indeed, tried to see the eclipse without proper or any eye protection, there is a chance you may have caused damage to your vision, known as solar retinopathy. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the fovea — a spot in the retina that is responsible for sharp, central vision — is most vulnerable.
Symptoms could have started emerging within hours after unprotected viewing. Some include fuzzy vision, graying vision, increased sensitivity to light, brown or yellow spots, or a blind spot in the center of one or both eyes.You would not have necessarily felt pain because the retina has no pain receptors, or noticed any redness or discharge.
People experiencing eye discomfort after an eclipse have been known to recover. But depending upon how long you looked directly at the sun — and it may have only been 60 to 100 seconds — damage could have occurred that even today’s science cannot correct.
“The retina is the neurological part of the eye,” said Dr. Eric Gama, a family physician at Dignity Health Hospital Medical Center in Northridge. “When you damage it in considerable amounts, it is not reversible. It’s why [doctors] tried to get a lot of information to the public about not looking directly into the sun. The retina may go back to normal a little bit, but if it’s permanent it is not reversible.
“It depends how long you were exposed. Symptoms will progress as time goes by. You might see a dark spot, or feel your eyes getting tired, getting watery. More severe would be seeing spots, not seeing very well, or even a loss of sight.”
The retina is the most sensitive part of the eye, Gama said, but that doesn’t mean other parts of the eye would not be damaged from looking directly into the sun. Some of those effects, however, are reversible.
Gama said that, fortunately, there were no vision complaints at Dignity Health following the Aug. 21 eclipse.
Dr. Adam Martidas, a retina specialist in Ventura County, said he saw “perhaps a half-dozen or so” patients complaining of vision problems after unprotected viewing of the eclipse.
“Mainly blurred vision and blind spots,” Martidas said. “There is no treatment. You have to allow the cells to recover. The main thing is to avoid bright light to allow the retina to recover.”
Totality — when the moon covered the sun — did not occur for Southland skywatchers. That could have been seen without protection, Martidas said, but even that view had to be short and with caution.
“You have to time it so that you were in ‘true’ totality. Because [uncovered] light leaking through could be damaging,” the doctor said.
“When you look at the sun you can only look for a few seconds because the light is so bright and intense. But when it is an eclipse, your brain is saying ‘I want to see it’ and you suppress the urge to turn away. As soon as the totality ends you must look away. It has nothing to do with the eclipse. It is looking at the sun.
“You could look at the sky today and have the same or worse problem from having 100 percent of sun in your eyes. Sunglasses can block some of the rays. But a lot of the damaging light is invisible light that can even penetrate ordinary sunglasses. Both ultraviolet light and infrared light are invisible. When looking at an eclipse, there is an invisible spectrum of light that needs to be filtered because it is so intense.”
Both Gama and Martidas advise seeing an eye care specialist immediately if you think you’re having or have gone through some post-eclipse vision issues.
“Anytime people feel unsure about what to do, or have something like this, always confirm with your doctor about what to do. Don’t guess,” Gama said.
“An eye care professional can evaluate the level of damage and offer advice,” added Martidas. “The most important thing is time. It depends how directly and how long you looked at the sun. The intensity and duration of exposure determines the damage. If there is too much damage, you may not fully recover.”