Across the country, Americans headed outdoors Monday to watch The Great American Eclipse, a rare celestial show in which the moon appeared to slide across the face of the sun. In Northeast Ohio, sky watchers saw a partial solar eclipse, with about 80 percent of the sun obscured by the moon.
However, those who tried to take in the rare event without the proper eye protection could have permanently damaged their eyes. So far, a number of area eye clinics and offices reported that they haven't seen anyone with eye damage but it's still early, local doctors say.
"”t could take today or tomorrow to see the full effects of it,” Corrie Weitzel, an optometrist at Cleveland Clinic's Cole Eye Institute, said Tuesday, after being on call the night of the eclipse. “Maybe some people are thinking, ‘I have these side effects but maybe they'll go away.’”
Usually, the signs of eye damage are noticeable within one to four hours, Weitzel said, and recommends those who experience changes in vision see their eye care providers to prevent further damage. While the damage already done is permanent in many cases, eye doctors can try to use strong magnifiers and other devices to compensate for the loss of vision, she said.
“I think that the magnitude of people who could potentially injure their eyes is great,” said Thomas Steinemann, a professor of ophthalmology at Case Western Reserve University and an ophthalmologist at the MetroHealth System.
Those who tried to view the eclipse directly could suffer from what is known as solar retinopathy — a loss of vision in the retina.
“We have no pain receptors in the retina. You're not going to know how much damage you're doing as it occurs,” Steinemann said. “We could potentially have lots of people both here in Cleveland and across the U.S. coming to the ophthalmologist.”
Those affected might experience fogged or distorted vision, light sensitivity, central blindness or see afterimages, the doctors warned.
Dr. Faruk Orge, chief of pediatric ophthalmology at University Hospitals, said there is a higher risk of children damaging their eyes during an eclipse because the lens in their eyes isn't yet as opaque as that of adults. To further compound the problem, children might not be able to describe a difference in their vision or will learn to adapt to changes by relying more heavily on the other eye, making it more difficult to know if there is damage.
Astronomers, scientists and doctors in advance of the eclipse recommended finding ways to protect the eye from potential harm: wearing protective glasses, creating pinhole projectors or using binoculars backwards to project the sun's image onto a surface.
UH's Orge has seen retinopathy in adult patients before and said it is somewhat more common in those who use LSD because they are mesmerized by colors and stare at the sky.
“Staring at the sun normally is bad whether an eclipse is going on or not,” Orge said. “Looking at any light source has the potential to cause similar damage. The difference with the sun is the rays are so powerful.”
Even every day lightbulbs, which have to meet filtering standards, could potentially be harmful if stared at for very long periods of time, Orge said. Not to mention lasers. That risk of harm is why welders, who deal with electric arcs, wear helmets with protective eye shields.
Healthcare reporter Julie Washington contributed to this story.
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