Stare for minutes at solar eclipse without proper protection and risk burning your eyes

People at the Singapore Science Centre viewing the solar eclipse on March 9, 2016.
People at the Singapore Science Centre viewing the solar eclipse on March 9, 2016.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Staring at the sun could literally burn your retinas off, warned doctors.

People who chose to stare at the solar eclipse on Wednesday morning could be at risk of a condition known as eclipse or solar retinopathy.

This condition comes with staring at the sun for long enough a time to burn the retina, and this could be a matter of minutes or less, depending on the intensity of the glare.

Those who suffer from this condition could experience blurred or distorted vision, dark spots, or changes in the way they perceive colour. There is no pain as the retina has no pain receptors.

Adjunct Associate Professor Lee Shu Yen, senior consultant and deputy head of the surgical retina department at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC), said: "If the centre of the retina was burnt, then the damage is the worst and they may not recover. If it was off centre, then there is a better chance of recovery."

It would be worse if people were using a magnifying aid to stare at the eclipse, pointed out Dr Gerard Nah, senior consultant in ophthalmology at the W Eye Clinic.

"It would be worse if they had used binoculars or other magnifying devices to look at the eclipse, because it is concentrating the power of the sun onto the eyes. The longer they do it, the more the damage it could cause to the eyes."

A pair of solar filters or glasses is needed for safe viewing. But there have been unsafe methods used, such as sunglasses, solar film, and X-ray film.

On the bright side, most patients of the condition do recover, to an extent.

"Most people get back 90 to 100 per cent of their vision, and they take three to six months to recover. But some people will never recover. Some may end up with a hole in their retina," said eye specialist Dr Chua Wei Han, who is also a medical director of Parkway Eye Centre@Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

But solar retinopathy cases are uncommon, and the SNEC said it has no recorded cases.

There is no treatment presently, and the best cure is prevention, said the doctors.

There is no method of doing retinal transplants. Researchers, however, are looking into it, but they have not been able to replicate all the 10 layers that the retina is made up of, said Prof Lee.