Did staring at the eclipse damage my eyes?



So you looked. Everyone told you not to, but it seemed so easy to sneak one little peek. Or maybe you just thought it would be okay to watch through a pair of sunglasses. Sure, you wouldn't stare at the sun through your sunglasses normally. But you were sure it was fine to chance it for such a momentous occasion.

And then came the paranoia. Maybe all those articles were right. Maybe the sun really is that damaging. Is that a pain in your eye? Is this what impending blindness feels like? How will you watch the Game of Thrones finale with no vision!?

Good news: eye pain doesn’t mean that you’re going blind. If you woke up this morning with a headache, it’s far more likely that you forgot to drink enough water—or that you spent the night so anxious about your retinas that you now have a tension headache.

But if you’re still concerned that you might’ve done some real damage, here’s what you should know:

You can’t feel retinal damage

There are no pain receptors that tell the brain photoreceptors are getting fried. Since the dimmed light during an eclipse is easier to handle, all the reflexes that normally keep you from looking directly at a bright star are dimmed as well. Without pain, that means many eclipse viewers will be able to tolerate the sun for longer than their eyes can actually handle.

But this lack of pain receptors also means that if you were one of the many, many people Googling “my eyes hurt” yesterday, you don’t necessarily have retinal damage. It's more likely that many of us are overreacting to standard aches and pains in response to all of the warnings we've heard about the eclipse.

Google trend my eyes hurt

The peak searches for "my eyes hurt" occurred at 2:56pm ET, which was shortly after the eclipse peaked on the East Coast

Google Trends (screencap by author)

The real signs of damage show up about 12 hours later

In other words, in the middle of the night. If you woke up this morning with blurry vision or a bright spot in one or both eyes, that’s a good sign you’ve done some damage. There’s not much you can do at this point but go see an optometrist (an ophthalmologist is better, but they’re harder to get in to see). They’ll be able to look through your pupil to your retina and assess the situation. If it’s really serious, they’ll send you along to a specialist for more testing.

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Scenes from the total solar eclipse from across the world
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Scenes from the total solar eclipse from across the world
An enthusiast holds his dog Prince, who sports solar glasses, as they await a total solar eclipse from atop Carroll Rim Trail at Painted Hills, a unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, near Mitchell, Oregon, U.S. August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image is near 44�39'117'' N 120�6'042'' W. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A multiple exposure image shows the solar eclipse as it creates the effect of a diamond ring at totality as seen from Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet (2,025m) is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, U.S. August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 35�33'24" N, 83�29'46" W. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Without his protective glasses on, U.S. President Donald Trump looks up towards the solar eclipse while viewing with his wife Melania and son Barron at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A total solar eclipse is seen above Madras, Oregon, U.S., August 21, 2017. Courtesy Aubrey Gemignani/NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Guests react to the total eclipse in the football stadium at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, U.S., August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 37�42'25" N 89�13'10" W. REUTERS/Brian Snyder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A jet plane flies by the total solar eclipse in Guernsey, Wyoming U.S. August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People watch the solar eclipse in downtown Hopkinsville, Kentucky, August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 38�51'56"N 87�29'19" W. REUTERS/John Sommers II
A man uses binoculars to watch a partial solar eclipse at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Jane Watts from Hopkinsville, KY, watch the solar eclipse with her cat in downtown Hopkinsville, Kentucky, August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 38�51'56"N 87�29'19" W. REUTERS/John Sommers II
A man watches a partial solar eclipse at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
CARBONDALE, IL - AUGUST 21: (EDITOR'S NOTE: Image was created as an Equirectangular Panorama. Import image into a panoramic player to create an interactive 360 degree view) People watch the solar eclipse at Saluki Stadium on the campus of Southern Illinois University on August 21, 2017 in Carbondale, Illinois. Although much of it was covered by a cloud, with approximately 2 minutes 40 seconds of totality the area in Southern Illinois experienced the longest duration of totality during the eclipse. Millions of people are expected to watch as the eclipse cuts a path of totality 70 miles wide across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A woman cries during the total solar eclipse at the Symbiosis Oregon Eclipse Festival at Big Summit Prairie ranch in Oregon's Ochoco National Forest near the city of Mitchell, August 21, 2017. Emotional sky-gazers stood transfixed across North America Monday as the Sun vanished behind the Moon in a rare total eclipse that swept the continent coast-to-coast for the first time in nearly a century. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
JACKSON, WY - AUGUST 21: A couple woman views the solar eclipse in the first phase of a total eclipse in Grand Teton National Park on August 21, 2017 outside Jackson, Wyoming. Thousands of people have flocked to the Jackson and Teton National Park area for the 2017 solar eclipse which will be one of the areas that will experience a 100% eclipse on Monday August 21, 2017. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Melania Trump watch the solar eclipse from the White House in Washington, U.S., August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Misha Bowen-Kreiner of Baltimore, Maryland, checks on the position of the sun from the flight deck of the Naval museum ship U.S.S. Yorktown during the Great American Eclipse in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, U.S. August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 32�47'26" N 79�54'31" W. REUTERS/Randall Hill
Ariana Mareyev (10) of Charleston wears several pairs of solar glasses on the flight deck of the Naval museum ship U.S.S. Yorktown during the Great American Eclipse in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, U.S. August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 32�47'26" N 79�54'31" W. REUTERS/Randall Hill
Tavon Boaman, 21, of Ft. Collins, Colo., does yoga as he watches the solar eclipse at Carhenge in Alliance, Neb., U.S. August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 42�8'33"N 102�51'29"W. REUTERS/Scott Morgan
Elizabeth Yauner, 5, wears solar eclipse glasses as she looks towards the sky while gathered in Old Havana for the partial solar eclipse in Cuba August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
Berta Alder is fascinated as she views the partial eclipse of the sun from the bottom deck of the Frost Museum in downtown Miami, Fla. (C.M. Guerrero/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
CHESTER, IL - AUGUST 21: An explosion is seen on the far right of the sun during the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, at Mary's River Covered Bridge, in Chester, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - AUGUST 21: A man observes the total solar eclipse with solar eclipse glasses at the Times Square in New York City, United States on August 21, 2017. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, USA - AUGUST 21: A woman observes the total solar eclipse with solar eclipse glasses at the Times Square in New York City, United States on August 21, 2017. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People view the solar eclipse at Liberty State Island as the Lower Manhattan and One World Trade center are seen in the background in New York, U.S., August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 40.4124�N, 74.237�W. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
People watch the solar eclipse from a rooftop bar in midtown Manhattan in New York City, U.S., August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 40.7484� N, 73.9857� W. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
People watch the solar eclipse from Madison Square in midtown Manhattan in New York City, U.S., August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 40.7484� N, 73.9857� W. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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Sometimes the damage does heal

But if you’ve really done a number on your photoreceptors, they’re not likely to heal completely. The body is excellent at healing cuts and scrapes because skin regenerates so frequently, but the nervous system isn’t quite so adept at rejuvenating cells. So even if your vision improves, it’ll take a year or so. In many cases, the damage is permanent.

If you just looked for a second, you’re probably okay

Technically speaking, there’s no safe amount of time to look at the sun. That’s why every NASA scientist and ophthalmologist on every network news show kept repeating “DO NOT LOOK AT THE ECLIPSE!” Seriously, you’d be amazed at how quickly your eyes can take an irreversible wallop.

But anyone who snuck the briefest of peeks is probably fine. A couple of photoreceptors are the most likely casualties of such a quick glance, and most people won't notice they're gone. Relax, take a deep breath, and remember that it’s easy to convince yourself that you have symptoms that aren’t really there. Very few people actually end up with solar retinopathy, but nearly everyone gets WebMD-itis. If you’re really concerned, go see a doctor. Otherwise, stop Googling and get back to work.

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