View the Solar Eclipse Safely

A total solar eclipse from 2012.

Eye specialists at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics say watching the August 21 solar eclipse can be an extraordinary experience, but doing so the wrong way could cause severe vision loss.

A solar eclipse will be visible across the contiguous United States for two to three hours August 21. On that day the moon will block out the sun while traveling over North America. Iowa City will experience a partial eclipse, where a little more than 90 percent of the sun's disc will be covered by the moon. 

Some helpful tips from Alison Bozung, OD, a member of the UI Health Care eye care team.

Staring at the sun can damage your eyes

Looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse—or at any other time—can seriously damage your eyes. Proper eye protection to observe the eclipse is necessary to avoid damaging your retinas permanently.

“Solar retinopathy is a very serious condition. Staring at the sun—even for a very short period of time—without the right eye protection can damage your retina and lead to permanent vision loss,” explains Karen Gehrs, MD, an ophthalmologist who specializes in retinal diseases at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

Gehrs recommends watching the eclipse indirectly. She says the safest way to view an eclipse is to watch it on a television or computer monitor indoors. 

Those who wish to try to view the eclipse with special-purpose solar filters or eclipse glasses need to realize they are doing so at their own risk, she adds. Viewers need to make sure the eclipse glasses or solar filters they use have the appropriate protective filters sufficient to prevent solar retinopathy. 

PDF iconDownload a one-page guide for safe eclipse viewing.

If an incorrect filter is used, a retinal burn can still occur.  

Alternatives to viewing the sun directly

If a solar filter is not available, the safest way to watch a solar eclipse is by turning your back to the sun and watching a projection through devices like a pinhole projector or watching an internet or news program that is tracking the eclipse. 

“It is important to know that regular sunglasses, even very dark ones, cannot protect your eyes from damage caused by looking directly at the sun. Only certified filters will provide protection,” Gehrs cautions.

Specifications for certified filters can be found on the American Academy of Ophthalmology website.

Gehrs explains that the retina is the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye, and solar retinopathy occurs when sunlight burns and potentially scars the retina.

Symptoms include central graying and fuzziness of vision. It can occur in one or both eyes depending on whether one looks at the sun with one or both eyes at the same time.

According to Gehrs, once a solar burn occurs, there is no treatment, and nothing can be done to undo the damage. A similar type of damage can occur if someone looks directly at a laser pointer.