Those who viewed Monday's solar eclipse were highly encouraged to wear proper eyewear, but for those who did not experts say there are some symptoms to watch for—and hospital officials say they are still on alert in case anyone presents with eye damage.
How long is too long?
Ralph Chou, a professor emeritus of optometry and vision science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said, "If people just saw the sun briefly without a protective filter—just a fraction of a second—the chances they've hurt themselves are very low." He added, "If they looked at the display of a camera or a smartphone but didn't look through the optics at the sun, they're in no danger. While it may look bright, it isn't all that bright by comparison."
And Chou added that if your eyes felt a little uncomfortable despite using a legitimate eclipse viewer, that's completely normal and should have dissipated within a few minutes. "The thing is, if you look for a sustained period through the filter, you're stimulating only one set of color-sensitive receptors at the back of the eye," Chou said. "So they'll get more work than, say, the receptors that are responsible for green and blue light. And the result will be that for a brief time, you'll suffer the same kind of after-image effects that you get from looking at a very bright headlight or flash from a camera."
That said, anything longer than a fraction of a second of direct sun observation may increase the risk of eye damage, according to Jacob Chung, chief of ophthalmology at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. "Ten seconds is probably too long and 20 seconds is definitely too long," Chung said.
Keep an eye out for symptoms, experts say
According to UnitedHealthcare Vision CEO Linda Chous, if you have stared too long at the sun, "short-term issues can include solar keratitis, which is similar to sunburn of the cornea (the front part of the eye)." She added, "This can cause eye pain and light sensitivity, with symptoms often occurring within 24 hours after exposure."
But long-term damage to the retina—at the back of the eye—is harder to detect right away, the Washington Post's "To Your Health" reports, largely because the retina doesn't have pain receptors, so a person might not realize the damage until symptoms appear hours or days later. Symptoms may include a loss of central vision, distortion, and/or altered colors.
For instance, according to Sveta Kavali, an ophthalmologist and retina specialist at Saint Louis University, staring directly into the sun can lead to a "typically irreversible" condition called solar retinopathy. "The way the damage occurs on a cellular basis is that the UV rays from the sun induces a photochemical reaction that damages the photo receptors of the retina, and the part of the retina that's damaged is the part that's responsible for your central vision," Kavali said.
Jack Cioffi, the chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Columbia University, added that while there is no treatment for such damage, people who think their vision may have suffered should consult with an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist can take a scan of the eye, assess any damage, inform the patient whether the issue stems from a solar burn or other cause, and can monitor the damage over time to see if it gets smaller.
"There is no real therapy, to be honest, but it can get better over one to six months," Cioffi explained. "The retina repairs, to some extent, but the scar can be permanent. Some might still have a small focal blind spot and distortion."
Hospitals don't see the eclipse-related surge they'd feared
While hospitals throughout the country implemented special protocols in anticipation of possibly having to treat a surge of patients with eclipse-related injuries, the event did not result in the anticipated patient surges, Casey Ross and Megan Thielking report for STAT News.
For instance, to meet the possible surge, St. Charles Health System in central Oregon, Red Bud Regional Hospital in central Illinois, and Palmetto Health in South Carolina all boosted staff. In addition, St. Charles canceled elective surgeries, Red Bud held special clinician training for the event, and Palmetto Health ran public service announcements on safe eclipse viewing.
But the three hospitals, as well as others nationwide, didn't experience the expected surge of eye-related complaints—or even the surge of patients typically associated with large-scale events, Ross and Thielking report. However, according to Ross and Thielking, the preparation meant "hefty sums spent on a clinical non-event."
Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive at St. Charles, said, "The upshot is we have not seen what we anticipated in terms of health care demand." And the unexpected lull also gave hospital staff a chance to view the eclipse themselves. "It was spectacular," Wayne McFarlin—an emergency preparedness administrator at Salem Health, which spent almost a year preparing for the event—said. "Part of the experience is watching everybody else watch the eclipse. It's something I can't remember (experiencing) before. I won't forget it."
But hospitals officials said they weren't yet letting down their guard: Most hospitals are still expecting at least a small increase in demand for eye care, particularly for conditions such as solar retinopathy for which symptoms don't immediately present (Wang, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 8/22; Hsu, "Shots," NPR, 8/21; Ross/Thielking, STAT News, 8/22; Hauser, New York Times, 8/22).
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