How seconds of staring at the solar eclipse led to a world of hurt for one woman

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Retinal damage
An optical coherence tomography image of a woman’s left-eye retina shows a crescent-shaped scar. (Wu et al.. / JAMA Ophthalmology)

A medical case reported today in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology proved the wisdom of all those warnings not to stare at the partly covered sun during August’s solar eclipse.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for the woman at the center of the case: Now she has a permanent scar in her left eye’s retina, and a permanent black spot in her field of vision.

The unnamed woman, who’s in her 20s, reported in at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai hours after the Aug. 21 eclipse, complaining of blurred vision and color distortion, mainly in her dominant left eye.

Physicians said she had “viewed the solar rim several times for approximately 6 seconds without protective glasses, and then again for approximately 15 to 20 seconds with a pair of eclipse glasses (unknown manufacturer).”

During the peak of the eclipse, about 70 percent of the sun’s area was obscured by the moon, leaving a bright crescent still visible. When doctors examined the woman, they found a crescent-shaped scar burned into her retina.

Experts have known for decades about the dangers of gazing at the partly eclipsed sun without taking protective measures — for example, wearing approved solar-filter glasses, putting a solar filter in front of your telescope, or watching the eclipse indirectly with a pinhole projection camera.

The authors of the JAMA Ophthalmology study, led by Chris Wu, say it’s actually rather rare to see a case of acute solar retinopathy nowadays, but they warn that the risk still remains.

“Young adults, whether owing to clearer optical media, larger pupils, or poorer recognition of the dangers of viewing the eclipse with improper protective eyewear, may be especially susceptible,” they write.

So here’s the TL;DR summary, kids: Never gaze at the bright sun, even for a few seconds, without proper eye protection. Looking at a total solar eclipse with the naked eye is totally OK, but once the sun’s disk starts peeking out again, put the glasses back on.

For what it’s worth, the next solar eclipse comes on July 2, 2019, with the best viewing available from the South Pacific and South America. The next total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. will be on April 8, 2024, which will give you plenty of time to get a pair of eclipse glasses.

There’s also a total lunar eclipse coming on Jan. 31, 2018, but don’t worry about that one. No special glasses are required to gaze at the moon.

In addition to Wu, the authors of “Acute Solar Retinopathy Imaged With Adaptive Optics, Optical Coherence Tomography Angiography, and En Face Optical Coherence Tomography” include Michael Jansen, Jorge Andrade, Toco Chui, Anna Do, Richard Rosen and Avnish Deobhakta.