Spending time outside, enjoying a solar eclipse, or skiing or snowshoeing all expose people to solar radiation, which can lead to solar retinopathy if you are not careful.

Solar retinopathy typically occurs from staring at the sun, usually during an eclipse, but it can sometimes come from other outdoor activities. Blurry vision, vision loss in the center of your sight, and eye pain are all symptoms of solar retinopathy.

The most common treatment for solar retinopathy is to wait for it to go away. Your eye doctor may schedule follow-up exams to monitor you for any vision loss. Preventing solar retinopathy by using protective eyewear is the best way to avoid this form of vision loss.

What Is Solar Retinopathy?

young woman staring at the sun

We know that our skin produces some vitamin D, so getting sunlight is important. At the same time, we know that too much solar radiation can lead to painful sunburns. Over time, too much ultraviolet (UV) light can cause skin cancer. Fewer people know that exposure to the sun can damage your vision too.

Melanoma can develop in your eye due to sun exposure. You can inflame or burn your cornea just like your skin, which can be very painful. Over time, this can lead to damage to that sensitive tissue.

You may develop cataracts, or clouding of the natural lens of your eye, because of too much sunlight. You could develop an unsightly pterygium or pinguecula. You could also damage your retina, temporarily or permanently, which is called solar retinopathy.

Exposure to direct sunlight can cause solar retinopathy, which is damage to the retina that leads to vision problems. Any amount of staring at the sun can damage your eyes for months. This rare condition is associated with specific causes, including looking at the sun during an eclipse, gazing at the sun for religious or spiritual reasons, sunbathing, or psychiatric disorders that lead to a disconnect from reality.

Causes & Symptoms of Solar Retinopathy

If you stare at the sun for even a minute, you could develop solar retinopathy. Symptoms typically begin within a few hours, with the most common issue being reduced central vision. This may be due to problems with your macula, the center of the retina that contains the most photoreceptive cells.

The most common reason people develop solar retinopathy in the United States is because of solar eclipses. These are exciting events that rarely occur in a person’s life, so many of us are excited to witness them. However, it’s vital to follow safety recommendations, or you could suffer the effects of solar retinopathy.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has a list of approved glasses for viewing solar eclipses.

Mild cases of solar retinopathy may include symptoms like:

  • Watering eyes.
  • Photosensitivity, or discomfort around bright lights.
  • Eye soreness.
  • Headaches.

More serious cases may include symptoms like:

  • Blurry vision.
  • Decreased color vision.
  • Trouble discerning shapes.
  • Distorted vision.
  • One or more blind spots, often in or around the center of your vision.
  • Dim vision.

In extreme cases, you could develop permanent low vision or blindness. Some people are more at risk for solar retinopathy than others, such as:

  • This is because their eyes are not fully developed.
  • People struggling with mental illnesses that cause them to separate from reality. They may be unable to process that they shouldn’t be staring at the sun.
  • Those who have undergone cataract surgery and no longer have a natural lens in their eye.

If you develop solar retinopathy, your vision should slowly improve over the course of six months or less. You may notice this progression, or you may not realize it is happening until one day you can see well.

Some people do not fully recover their sight after solar retinopathy. Get help from an eye doctor as soon as possible, so you can understand what to expect in your situation.

Treating Solar Retinopathy

man with sunglasses on

Diagnosing solar retinopathy requires a trip to your optometrist or ophthalmologist. They will consider your symptoms and examine your eye for damage. They will also ask you about activities before and after the symptoms began.

If they think you were exposed to too much sunlight, they may offer some eye drops for symptom relief. Then, they’ll have you come back in a month or so for a checkup to ensure there is no lasting damage.

Your eye doctor may use a variety of tests and tools during your exam. These include:

  • Optical coherence tomography, to look at the surface shape of your retina.
  • Slit lamp exam to look at your retina in the back of your eye.
  • Photographs of your retina to monitor any changes.
  • Fluorescein dye tests to look at blood vessels.

Photoreceptor cells called foveal cones tend to be very resilient and resist photochemical damage from the sun. Most people who experience solar retinopathy have temporary symptoms, although you may need between a month and a year to fully recover. You should regain your vision after that time.

Even repeated solar retinopathy developments can be overcome if you give yourself time to heal. However, the more often you expose your eyes to the sun without protection, the more likely you are to lose your sight.

Multiple instances of solar retinopathy can cause permanent damage, leading to low vision. Chronic exposure to sunlight also makes you more likely to develop solar retinopathy again.

Preventing Solar Retinopathy Is the Best Approach

The best way to prevent solar retinopathy is to use caution in sunlight. Just like you wear sunscreen to protect your skin, you should wear UV-protecting eyewear outdoors, especially on bright days. You can work with your optometrist to get prescription sunglasses that also protect against UV rays.

There are many other ways to protect your eyes from the sun.

  • Wear a hat along with sunglasses.
  • Wear protective goggles while skiing or snowshoeing to protect against UV rays bouncing off snow.
  • Get UV-protective lenses for your regular glasses.
  • Do not look directly into the sun.
  • If you view an eclipse, use special protective eyewear for this event.

In the modern world, there are several devices that emit light that can also cause damage to your retina. While these devices do not specifically cause solar retinopathy, they can cause a form of photic retinopathy, which is related and can have similar symptoms.

Wearing safety goggles with specific light protection around certain devices is important. These devices may include:

  • Tanning beds.
  • Laser pointers.
  • Some types of microscopes.
  • Welding tools with arcs.
  • Some photographical illuminating mechanisms.

If you are concerned about solar retinopathy, get help from your eye doctor. Your chances of healing over time are very high, but you can get a better estimate of what to expect after a thorough eye exam.

 

References

Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation. (July 2019). American Cancer Society.

Solar Retinopathy: The Yellow Dot and the Rising Sun. (2017). British Medical Journal Case Reports.

Solar Retinopathy. (December 2014). EyeWiki, American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

Reputable Vendors of Solar Filters and Viewers. (2018). American Astronomical Society (AAS).

Solar Maculopathy: Prognosis Over One Year Follow Up. (September 2019). BMC Ophthalmology.

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