How to watch the eclipse safely

By Jen Heller
Reader Contributor

Like your skin, your eyes are pretty vulnerable to the sun’s rays. Most people know that wearing sunglasses helps prevent damage to your eyes. Long-term exposure to UV rays has been proven to accelerate sight-inhibiting conditions like cataracts or macular degeneration.

So, can you use normal sunglasses to watch the eclipse? Think of it this way: Do you normally stare at the sun while wearing your sunglasses or glasses? Hopefully, the answer is a big NO! All types of normal sunwear block exponentially less rays than required to look at the sun safely…. those silly-looking eclipse glasses don’t just block all harmful UV light, they also block all harmful infrared light and 99.99 percent of intense visible light (which is why driving in your eclipse glasses is a very bad idea).

The two eye conditions that eclipse-watchers often fall prey to are photokeratitis and solar retinopathy. You’ve actually heard of the first one – ever had snow blindness after a day on the slopes? It leaves a burning, watering sensation in your eye a few hours after being in intense sunlight, but the good news is that it often goes away on its own, with limited long-term effects.

Solar retinopathy, not so much. A sunburn on your retina isn’t thermal so much as chemical – the sun’s rays cause oxidation and the creation of free radicals in the super-important cells in the back of your eye. When that happens, your vision goes haywire, and to-date there is nothing any eye doctor can do to fix it. Key signs are a headache, altered color perception, and blurry vision and/or blind spots within hours of exposure. Recovery is slow, over three-to-six months, and your vision may never return to how it was before. Kids are especially at risk for this sort of injury, due to their eye tissues being really young and clear (in other words, they transmit a lot of light to the backs of their eyes).

There’s one key fact to remember about all retinal conditions. The nerves in the backs of your eyes are set up to react to outside stimuli in only one way: vision. That’s why a lot of diseases and injuries on your actual retina don’t hurt — they just make you see really weird, trippy stuff. If you stare at the sun for a while because you’re not feeling any pain, you’re not tougher than anyone else. You’re just setting yourself up for big regrets.

The only time experts say it’s safe to look at the sun with bare eyes or sunglasses during a solar eclipse is during the one or two minutes that the eclipse is in totality — that is, when the sun is completely covered by the moon. In Bonner and Boundary counties, we will max out at 90-percent totality. That means it will never, at any point during the eclipse, be safe to look directly at the sun anywhere in North Idaho without certified eclipse glasses on.

So, don’t try stacking a few pairs of your friends’ sunglasses together to stare at the sun. Buy certified eclipse glasses online. Or, if all else fails, Google how to build a quick and easy homemade projector.  By projecting the image of the sun onto cardboard or a similar surface, you can watch that cool “nibble” in the side of the sun grow and shrink without frying your eyeballs.

Jen Heller thoroughly enjoys her work at Pend Oreille Vision Care and its satellite clinic, Bonners Ferry Eye Care. 

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