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Why is looking at a solar eclipse dangerous without special glasses? Eye doctors explain.

How a solar eclipse can damage your eyes
Why looking directly at a solar eclipse is so dangerous for your eyes 01:41

The solar eclipse will be visible for millions of Americans on April 8, 2024, making many excited to see it — but how you watch it matters, since it can be dangerous for your eyes. 

solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, blocking the sun's light. When the moon blocks some of the sun, it's a partial solar eclipse, but when moon lines up with the sun, blocking all of its light, a total solar eclipse occurs, NASA explains. Either way, you need eye protection when viewing.

"The solar eclipse will be beautiful, so I hope that everyone experiences it — but they need to experience it in the right way," said Dr. Jason P. Brinton, an ophthalmologist and medical director at Brinton Vision in St. Louis.

Here's what to know to stay safe.

Why is looking at a solar eclipse dangerous?

Looking at the sun — even when it's partially covered like during an eclipse — can cause eye damage.

There is no safe dose of solar ultraviolet rays or infrared radiation, said Dr. Yehia Hashad, an ophthalmologist, retinal specialist and the chief medical officer at eye health company Bausch + Lomb.

"A very small dose could cause harm to some people," he said. "That's why we say the partial eclipse could also be damaging. And that's why we protect our eyes with the partial as well as with the full sun."

Some say that during a total eclipse, it's safe to view the brief period time when the moon completely blocks the sun without eye protection. But experts warn against it. 

"Totality of the eclipse lasts only about 1 to 3 minutes based on geographic location, and bright sunlight suddenly can appear as the moon continues to move," notes an eclipse viewing guide published in JAMA, adding, "even a few seconds of viewing the sun during an eclipse" can temporarily or permanently damage your vision. 

Do I need special glasses for eclipse viewing?

Yes. Eclipse glasses are needed to protect your eyes if you want to look at the eclipse.

Regular sunglasses aren't protective enough for eclipse viewing — even if you stack more than one. 

"There's no amount of sunglasses that people can put on that will make up for the filtering that the ISO standard filters and the eclipse glasses provide," Brinton said.

You also shouldn't look at the eclipse through a camera lens, phone, binoculars or telescope, according to NASA, even while wearing eclipse glasses. The solar rays can burn through the lens and cause serious eye injury.

Eclipse glasses must comply with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard, according to NASA, and should have an "ISO" label printed on them to show they comply. The American Astronomical Society has a list of approved solar viewers.

Fake eclipse glasses are hitting the market. Here's how to check if yours are safe to use. 01:44

Can't find these, or they're sold out near you? You can also make homemade viewers, which allow you to observe the eclipse indirectly — just don't accidentally look at the sun while using one.

How to keep kids safe during the solar eclipse

Since this eclipse is expected to occur around the time of dismissal for many schools across the country, it may be tempting for students to view it without the proper safety precautions while getting to and from their buses. That's why some school districts are canceling classes early so kids can enjoy the event safely with their families.

Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, vitreoretinal surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary at Mount Sinai, said parents should also be careful because it can be difficult for children to listen or keep solar eclipse glasses on. 

"You want to actually, in my opinion, kind of avoid them even looking at the eclipse, if possible," he said. "Never look directly at the sun, always wear the right eclipse sunglasses if you are going to look at the sun and make sure that those are coming from a reliable source."

Brinton recommends everyone starts their eclipse "viewing" early, by looking at professional photos and videos of an eclipse online or visiting a local planetarium. 

That way, you "have an idea of what to expect," he said. 

He also recommends the foundation Prevent Blindness, which has resources for families about eclipse safety.

What happens if you look at a solar eclipse without eclipse glasses?

While your eyes likely won't hurt in the moment if you look at the eclipse without protection, due to lowered brightness and where damage occurs in the eye, beware: The rays can still cause damage.

The harm may not be apparent immediately. Sometimes trouble starts to appear one to a few days following the event. It could affect just one or both eyes.

And while some will regain normal visual function, sometimes the damage is permanent. 

"Often there will be some recovery of the vision in the first few months after it, but sometimes there is no recovery and sometimes there's a degree to which it is permanent," Brinton said. 

How long do you have to look at the eclipse to damage your eyes?

Any amount of time looking at the eclipse without protection is too long, experts say. 

"If someone briefly looks at the eclipse, if it's extremely brief, in some cases there won't be damage. But damage can happen even within a fraction of a second in some cases," Brinton said. He said he's had patients who have suffered from solar retinopathy, the official name for the condition.

Deobhakta treated a patient who watched the 2017 solar eclipse for 20 seconds without proper eye protection. She now has permanent damage in the shape of a crescent that interferes with her vision. 

"The crescent that is burned into the retina, the patient sees as black in her visual field," he said. "The visual deficit that she has will never go away."

How to know if you've damaged your eyes from looking at the eclipse

Signs and symptoms of eye damage following an eclipse viewing include headaches, blurred vision, dark spots, changes to how you see color, lines and shapes. 

Unfortunately, there isn't a treatment for solar retinopathy.

"Seeing an eye care professional to solidify the diagnosis and for education I think is reasonable," Brinton said, but added, "right now there is nothing that we do for this. Just wait and give it time and the body does tend to heal up a measure of it."

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