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Here's What It Looks Like When You Fry Your Eye In An Eclipse

Dec 7, 2017
Originally published on December 7, 2017 4:39 pm

At least one young woman suffered eye damage as a result of unsafe viewing of the recent total solar eclipse, according to a report published Thursday, but it doesn't appear that many such injuries occurred.

Doctors in New York say a woman in her 20s came in three days after looking at the Aug. 21 eclipse without protective glasses. She had peeked several times, for about six seconds, when the sun was only partially covered by the moon.

Four hours later, she started experiencing blurred and distorted vision and saw a central black spot in her left eye. The doctors studied her eyes with several different imaging technologies, described in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, and were able to observe the damage at the cellular level.

"We were very surprised at how precisely concordant the imaged damage was with the crescent shape of the eclipse itself," noted Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, a retina surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in New York, in an email to NPR.

He says this was the most severely injured patient they saw after the eclipse. All in all, 22 people came to their urgent care clinic with concerns about possible eclipse-related damage, and most of them complained of blurred vision. Of those, only three showed some degree of abnormality in the retina. Two of them had only mild changes, however, and their symptoms have gone away.

The young woman described in this case report, at last check, still has not recovered normal vision. "But we have not been able to follow up with her as closely as we'd like. We would like to see her back in the New Year," says Deobhakta.

Ralph Chou, an expert on eclipse-related eye damage at the University of Waterloo, says he got a report from a colleague of one similar eye injury in Pennsylvania. "This young man had played it safe by only looking at the eclipsing sun with one eye," notes Chou. "He looked with one eye and he got fried."

While it's possible that other eye specialists are treating patients but have not publicly reported on them, says Chou, "right now, we haven't really seen any indication of a lot of cases. ... It's certainly not like what we saw in the United Kingdom after the August 1999 eclipse, where they did a survey and got information on a number of cases of eye damage as a result of observing that eclipse."

Given that some 215 million adult Americans watched the eclipse, says Chou, "it makes us feel like the whole public education campaign was pretty successful."

Injured eyes can often recover in the months following an eclipse, he notes, but if people's damaged vision hasn't been improving by now, that means it's probably permanent.

If you still have your special solar glasses and have treated them well, says Chou, you can put them away in a safe place and use them again in 2024, when we'll get the next total solar eclipse over the continental United States.

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