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How to keep your eyes safe during the solar eclipse

VCU Health eye surgeon shares tips to avoid injuries during the celestial event.

Solar eclipse view glasses held up in the air If you want to watch the solar eclipse in April, VCU Health experts say it’s important to avoid looking directly at the sun and recommend you get a pair of solar eclipse glasses or make an eclipse viewer. (Getty Images)

By Sara McCloskey

Virginians will experience their first partial solar eclipse in nearly seven years the second week of April.

A narrow corridor stretching from Texas to Maine will be in the eclipse’s path of totality on April 8, meaning the moon’s shadow will completely obscure the sun.

VCU Health’s Jessica Randolph, M.D., will be among the crowds of people checking out this year’s celestial event.

“I love science and the solar eclipse is such a neat thing to see,” Randolph said.

A vitreoretinal surgeon, or an ophthalmologist, who specializes in diseases of the retina, Randolph knows how important it is to protect one's eyes. The most common injuries she treats at VCU Health include diabetic eye disease, macular degeneration, retinal detachments, among other conditions.

Randolph spoke with VCU Health News about safety measures astronomy enthusiasts should take for the upcoming solar eclipse.

How sensitive are human eyes to the sun?

Human eyes are very sensitive to the sun. Generally, our daily exposure to the sun doesn't cause damage, but prolonged exposure – looking directly at the sun – can cause irreversible damage to the retina. The retina is the wallpaper on the inside wall of the eye, and acts kind of like camera film to help you see. Staring directly at the sun can cause damage to the retina in the central vision.

Are there any different effects a solar eclipse may have on the eye compared to the sun?

The only difference a solar eclipse has is that more people are staring at the sun for longer periods of time. Most people don't stare directly at the sun during their day-to-day lives, but something like the eclipse – where attention is drawn to staring at it – can cause damage. This type of damage can also happen from looking at laser pointers, so it’s important not to shine those directly into the eyes either.

With the solar eclipse coming up, what should I do to protect my eyes? Do I need special glasses, or would regular sunglasses be suitable?

People must absolutely get solar eclipse glasses to protect their eyes while watching the eclipse. Regular sunglasses are not strong enough. Eclipse glasses have special filters to protect the eyes and retina from harmful sun damage. Make sure your eclipse glasses meet the worldwide standard and are purchased from a reputable place.

Also, do not look directly at the sun with binoculars, cameras, telescopes or any other type of optical device. These lenses will concentrate the solar rays and can burn through the filters – causing serious eye injuries.

If you do not have access to eclipse glasses, an eclipse viewer can be made out of two sheets of paper. To see the eclipse, let the sunlight shine through a pinhole in one sheet and fall on the other sheet, where an image of the sun will appear. Use the pinhole viewer to look at the image on the sheet of paper, not to look directly at the sun. Here are some more tips from NASA on how to make your own eclipse viewer.

How would I know if I hurt myself while looking at the sun or an eclipse?

Damage from the sun typically manifests as a blurry spot or blind spot in or near the central vision.

At what point should I go to an eye doctor or an emergency department because of injuries?

If someone notices a blind spot or blurriness that is persistent after the eclipse, they should see an eye doctor for an evaluation. At that visit they will get a comprehensive examination, and likely a scan of the back of the eye to look for damage. Although some people's symptoms improve over time, some people are left with permanent vision loss. So, make sure to wear those glasses!

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