A solar eclipse is dangerous for everyone and children are especially at risk. Even when the sun is 99% eclipsed it can do serious eye damage. This is what you need to know and do, especially with all the unsafe counterfeit eclipse glasses that have flooded the market.
Why Is An Eclipse So Dangerous?
There is no warning. You feel no pain while you are damaging your eyes. You will feel just fine and see normally for several hours after all the damage has already been done. Several hours after watching the eclipse, changes begin to occur in your vision. Things begin to look blurry and/or distorted. The central area of your vision may start getting darker. You may have headaches. For as long as 24 hours after the eclipse the deterioration continues and you could end up totally blind.
This is not a pretty picture.
During the eclipse the reduced intensity of the visual light makes it possible to stare at the sun for long periods of time while the eyes are flooded with damaging UV light. Even when the 99% of the sun is hidden behind the moon it is streaming dangerous UV light into your eyes.
Children are especially at risk because they have so little awareness of the dangers. All children should be warned about the dangers of looking at the sun. Younger children should not be left unsupervised during the entire time of the eclipse. All it takes to do significant eye damage is for a young, curious child to look up in the sky (or out a window) and stare at the sun.
The Medical Treatment for Damaged Eyes
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says: “No known beneficial treatment exists for solar retinopathy. Prevention is through education is paramount.”
And how does the AAO say your doctor should manage your solar retinopathy? “Observation only.” The only thing your eye doctor can do is look into you eyes to see what is happening. Nothing can be done to help you other than alleviate the growing pain.
Recovery from Solar Retinopathy
All is not lost. For many people some or all of their vision returns in as little as one month to as long as one year. Other people will have a partial recovery with significant and permanent eye damage for the rest of their lives with distorted and/or blurry vision, and/or dark to totally black areas in the central area of their vision. And a few very unfortunate people will remain totally blind.
What Happens to Your Eyes While You look at the Sun?
Contrary to the misinformation on the internet, the sun does not “cook” your eyes (unless you burn your eyes by looking through an unprotected telescope, an unprotected long camera lens, or an unprotected pair of binoculars, any of which will be incredibly painful).
As you stare at the sun the UV rays begin a long and slow photochemical reaction that slowly destroys the rods and cones. The process is not totally understood. Here is a technical description for those of you who are scientifically and medically curious.
“Photochemical retinal injury is believed to be a product of free radical formation. Two mechanisms of free radical formation have been proposed. First, absorption of light energy by a molecule causes an electron to enter an “excitation state”, with free radical formation being a means by which such an electron can return to the “ground state” energy level. In returning to the “ground state” energy level, an excited state electron splits a bond within another molecule, forming a free radical.9 Second, light energy absorption can cause excitation of and direct transfer of energy from an intraretinal chromophore – flavoproteins, heme proteins, melanosomes, lipofuscin, and photoreceptors themselves – to oxygen, creating a reactive oxygen species. Furthermore, the photochemical injury to the retinal tissues may be thermally enhanced.” AAO
Prevention – How To Safely Watch the Eclipse
Do not look at the sun with your unprotected eyes at any time before, during or after the eclipse except for the two minutes of totality. The instant totality starts to end and little bits of the sun peak around the mountains and ridges in the moon, put your eye protection back on.
To look at the sun safely before and after totality you must use safe eclipse glasses, eclipse viewers, or eclipse binoculars from a vendor approved by the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Here’s the AAS list of approved, reputable vendors.
Amazon and the internet have been flooded with fakes. If you did not get your eclipse glasses, viewers or binoculars from an AAS approved vendor, cut them up, throw them away, and buy directly from an approved vendor. This article will help: You Can Still Find Eclipse Binoculars, Glasses, and Photography Filters If you Act Now.
How to Safely Photograph the Sun
There are two kinds of filters you can use to safely photograph the sun.
“High density” filters are safe for your camera but not safe for your eyes. Your camera must be in Live View mode at all times. Do not look through the viewfinder of the camera, and do not look through the filter at the sun.
“White Light” solar filters from Thousand Oaks Optical are safe for your eyes as well as safe for your camera.
If you want to photograph the sun, read these articles.
How To Make the Most out of the Eclipse
The most important article you should read to enjoy the solar eclipse is this one: How to Find, View, and Photograph the “Great American Eclipse” – August 21, 2017.
More information about eclipse safety from the AAS
- 9-page technical report on solar eclipse safety (in our Downloads section)
- Photos of safe solar filters & people using them (in our Resources section)
- “How to View the 2017 Solar Eclipse Safely” (NASA)
- “How to Watch a Partial Solar Eclipse Safely” (Sky & Telescope magazine)
- “How to Look at the Sun” (Sky & Telescope magazine)
- “How to View the Sun Safely” (Front Page Science)
- “How to Make a Pinhole Camera” (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
- “How to View a Solar Eclipse” (Exploratorium)
- “Video: How to Safely View the Solar Eclipse” (Celestron)
The Great American Eclipse Series
How to Tell If Your Eclipse Glasses or Handheld Solar Viewers Are Safe – the American Astronomical Society
Reputable Vendors of Solar Filters – the American Astronomical Society
Technical Medical Links
Solar Retinopathy – American Academy of Ophthalmology