You’ve probably heard a lot of stories warning about the damage that can happen if you look directly at the sun during the solar eclipse. And it’s all true: you shouldn’t look at the sun unless you’re wearing special solar glasses. But has anyone ever gone blind or had permanent eye damage from looking at the solar eclipse?
The answer is yes. You may not go 100 percent blind, but at the very least you can end up with a permanent spot of blindness in the center of your vision.
Lou Tomososki went blind when he looked up at a partial solar eclipse in Oregon in 1962, while he was walking home with a friend, Today reported. He only looked at the sun for a few seconds, he said, and he saw flashes of light in front of his eyes similar to what you’d see if a picture was taken with flash.
His right eye was burned and his friend’s left eye was burned. All these years later, he still struggles to see if he only looks out his right eye because he has a blind spot in the center of his right eye. Over the years, the damage didn’t get worse or better, it stayed the same.
The technical term for this is solar retinopathy. It means the retina is damages from looking at the sun, causing a spot of blindness. It typically happens in the middle of the eye, when intense solar radiation hits the retinas and destroys photoreceptors. And you may not notice the damage until the next day. Ralph Chou, an optometry professor in Canada, told Space.com that some people might wake up and look in the mirror and notice their face looks like a featureless blur, or they can’t see any words on a newspaper.
If you have a blind spot and it doesn’t go away by the next day, you might have sun damage to your eyes. This is why it’s important to never look directly at the sun, whether during an eclipse or not, even if you’re wearing sunglasses.
Tomososki isn’t the only one who has dealt with eye damage after looking at the sun. There are many in history who experienced it as well. Isaac Newton is reported to have tried looking at the sun through a mirror and blinded himself for three days. He saw afterimages in his sight for months afterwards, LiveScience reported.
Chou told Space.com that he’s had some patients come after an eclipse and he could actually see the shape of crescents burned into the back of their eyes. “You can almost tell exactly when they looked,” he said.
A 1999 study after a solar eclipse in Europe found that 40 people were confirmed to have some sort of damage to their eyes after visiting a clinic in Leicester, and five of those actually had visible changes to their retina. Out of this group, 20 reported eye pain and 20 had vision problems. Twelve out of the 20 reported normal vision after seven months, but four still had eye damage in their visual field seven months later.
A 1995 study reviewing 58 people who had eye damage from a 1976 eclipse in Turkey discovered that some people’s eye damage healed after a month. But any who still had vision problems after 18 months typically retained that damage when they were asked about it again 15 years later.
In general, about half of the patients who have eclipse blindness recover in about six months. The other half either recover at least partially or they’re stuck with the damage for the rest of their lives. And there aren’t any good treatments. You just have to wait and see.
The danger is very real. So make sure you have proper solar protection for your eyes if you’re going to be trying to get a glimpse of that solar eclipse.