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Staring at the total solar eclipse this summer can burn your retina

OHSU Casey Eye Institute experts recommend spectators wear special solar eclipse safety viewing glasses or use a pinhole projector
Solar eclipse
(Getty Images)

UPDATED FRIDAY, AUGUST 18, 4:45 P.M.—OHSU Doernbecher Tom Sargent Safety Center no longer has eclipse viewing glasses available. The OHSU Casey Eye Institute does not stock or distribute eclipse-viewing glasses to patients or the public.

Oregon will be the first of 12 states in the country to get a front row seat to a rare celestial event: a total solar eclipse where the moon completely covers the sun and the sky goes dark in mid-daylight.

Total solar eclipse
A clinical photo showing a 28-year-old woman who looked at the sun for an extended period while watching a parachute jump. The patient tried to protect her eye by cupping her hands to create a pinhole effect. Three days later, she noted a central graying and fuzziness of the vision of the right eye, which had been stationary since then. An examination showed a slightly elevated lesion in the macula, a definite central scotoma. Her vision decreased and a year later, the vision in the right eye was 20/40, and there was still a small subretinal scar in the macula of the right eye and a tiny scotoma (not shown). (National Eye Institute)

But Thomas Hwang, M.D., a retina expert at OHSU Casey Eye Institute and an associate professor of ophthalmology in the OHSU School of Medicine, has a critical warning for spectators.

“If you look directly at the eclipse, it can burn your retina in mere seconds and can cause permanent damage,” says Hwang.

Scheduled to hit the West Coast Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, around 10 a.m. PT, this eclipse is rare for two reasons: it will be the first total solar eclipse visible only in the United States since 1776 and the first total solar eclipse to cross the entire country in 99 years. It’s most powerful ‘path of totality’ (the 2.5 minutes when the moon completely covers the sun) is going straight through Oregon.

The damage caused to the eye is called solar retinopathy and it can give you a permanent blind spot -- the longer the exposure, the hotter the retina gets and the more likely the damage.

Hwang says the total solar eclipse is unique because it can deliver a lot of energy to the center of vision, even when things seem kind of dark. Hwang says most people normally would not look at the sun directly, but may not be as hesitant to look at a solar eclipse because it isn’t as bright (and it’s more interesting). 

“There’s a simple solution: Wear the special solar eclipse safety viewing glasses to protect your eyes or use a pinhole projector,” says Hwang. “And even with the special glasses, don’t look at the eclipse for a long time. Sunglasses won’t cut it either – they are not nearly good enough filters.”

Casey Eye Institute’s retina team is available to comment on why and how to protect your eyes from the total solar eclipse headed for Oregon. Contact Ariane Le Chevallier at 503-494-8231 or to arrange a media interview.

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