Solar Retinopathy

Have you ever heard that you shouldn’t look directly at the sun? There’s a reason for that advice. Staring at the sun (or other bright lights like welding torches) can damage the retinas in your eyes, causing vision changes and eye pain.

Overview

What is solar retinopathy?

Solar retinopathy is damage to your retina from looking directly at the sun or other bright lights like laser pointers. Your retina is a thin tissue in your eye that senses light and directs signals to your brain so you can see. Solar retinopathy can cause a variety of symptoms, including permanent low vision.

What does solar retinopathy look like?

You can’t tell if you have solar retinopathy by looking at your eye in the mirror or having a friend or family member look at your eye. But an ophthalmologist can see signs of solar retinopathy by examining you and using fundus photography and optical coherence tomography (OCT). This imaging test allows providers to see damage or irregularities of your retina. For example, they might see a small, yellow, round, damaged area.

Who does solar retinopathy affect?

Solar retinopathy can affect anyone who gazes directly at the sun, a solar eclipse or a very bright light. It’s more common in those who:

  • Do welding without protective eyewear.
  • Are under the influence of recreational drugs.
  • Are children.
  • Have psychiatric disorders.
  • Take part in religious sun gazing.
  • Sunbathe often.
  • Look at laser pointers.
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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of solar retinopathy?

Mild symptoms of solar retinopathy include:

More serious symptoms of solar retinopathy include:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Eye pain.
  • Metamorphopsia (straight lines appear rounded).
  • Micropsia (objects appear smaller than they are).
  • Scotoma (a blind spot in your line of sight).

Is solar retinopathy painful?

As the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays damage the tissue of your retina, you won’t have pain or feel anything. But after the exposure, you could experience symptoms of solar retinopathy, including eye soreness and discomfort. It might take a few hours or days for symptoms to begin and to notice vision problems.

What are the complications of solar retinopathy?

In rare cases, solar retinopathy can cause blindness. Prolonged, frequent and direct sun exposure can cause more damage to your retina. In severe solar retinopathy, the exposure can cause so much retinal damage that it leads to permanent blindness.

What causes solar retinopathy?

When you look directly at the sun, UV rays damage your eye tissue, leading to solar retinopathy. One activity that causes solar retinopathy is viewing the sun during an eclipse. Solar retinopathy is also caused by looking at bright lights from welding torches or laser pointers.

How do laser pointers cause solar retinopathy?

Researchers have studied the effects of laser pointers on the eyes for years. The lights on some lasers are stronger than others. When a laser with an output power of 5 milliwatts or more shines into your eye, it can damage your retina. This damage can happen even after a few seconds of exposure to the light, so it’s important never to shine a laser pointer directly in anyone’s eye.

Also, blue- and violet-colored lasers are more dangerous than red or green lasers because eyes are less sensitive to blue and violet. You may not turn away as fast from a blue or violet laser, giving it more time to harm your eye.

How long does it take to get solar retinopathy?

You may notice the first signs of solar retinopathy within hours of direct exposure to the sun’s light.

What are risk factors for solar retinopathy?

Some researchers say that people with schizophrenia or other psychoses are more likely to gaze at the sun. This raises their risk for solar retinopathy. If you or a loved one has a mental condition that might compel you to look at the sun, talk to a healthcare provider. They can work with you to figure out the best prevention measures.

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Diagnosis and Tests

How is solar retinopathy diagnosed?

During an exam, your ophthalmologist may ask questions to find out if your eyes have been exposed to direct sun, laser pointers or welding torches. These questions help your provider decide if they need to use OCT to take a closer look at your retina. OCT is a noninvasive imaging test that uses light waves to make pictures of the back of your eye.

Management and Treatment

Can solar retinopathy heal?

Solar retinopathy heals in most cases. In mild cases of solar retinopathy, symptoms and vision problems resolve on their own. In more severe cases, vision damage might be irreversible.

If diagnosed, your ophthalmologist will likely schedule multiple follow-up appointments to keep checking on your vision. Work with your ophthalmologist to determine the best treatment plan for vision correction.

How do I manage my solar retinopathy symptoms?

If you’re experiencing symptoms of solar retinopathy, schedule an eye exam with an ophthalmologist right away. An eye care specialist can help you manage symptoms like blurred vision, watery eyes and blind spots.

If you have sensitivity to light, avoid sources of bright light, including screens and sunshine. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

You can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) to relieve headaches and eye soreness. But check with your provider before taking any medication.

How soon will my eyes feel better?

Your solar retinopathy symptoms might improve up to six months after your exposure. However, some people might experience irreversible vision loss.

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Prevention

How can I prevent solar retinopathy?

The best ways to prevent solar retinopathy are to:

  • Use protective eyewear (sunglasses) when exposed to sunlight.
  • Avoid looking right at the sun (even when wearing sunglasses).
  • Wear special solar filters in your glasses or viewers if you’re viewing a solar event like an eclipse.
  • Wear protective eyewear if you work with a welding torch.
  • Never shine a laser pointer into your eyes or someone else’s eyes.
  • Check the power of a laser pointer when purchasing one.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have solar retinopathy?

If you have damaged retina(s), your vision might seem different for a while. You could experience eye soreness or pain, light sensitivity or other vision changes. You could see temporary eye floaters or flashers immediately after looking at the sun, a welding torch or a laser pointer. This is part of having solar retinopathy.

If you’re diagnosed with mild solar retinopathy, your symptoms should improve without treatment. Each day your vision changes should improve, and your eyesight should slowly return.

You can also expect to have a few appointments with your eye care specialist to ensure the damage to your retina is improving.

What’s the outlook for solar retinopathy?

In mild cases, healing usually happens on its own, and vision returns to normal within one to six months. The more retina damage you have, the more it affects your vision.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider about solar retinopathy?

See your ophthalmologist if your vision changes or worsens. For example, if you experience new vision loss in one or both of your eyes, call your eye care specialist immediately.

What questions should I ask my provider?

When you see an eye care specialist for solar retinopathy, it’s important to understand your diagnosis and potential treatment plan. Bring up any questions or concerns to your provider. You may want to ask:

  • Is my case of solar retinopathy mild, moderate or severe?
  • Why are you recommending this treatment or procedure?
  • Can I take any medications to relieve solar retinopathy symptoms?
  • Will my symptoms come back?
  • How long will it take for my vision to improve?
  • What can I expect for my eye health long term?
  • How can I prevent this from happening in the future?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

People have turned their faces toward the sun — during solar eclipses and sometimes just a beautiful day — for thousands of years. In fact, solar retinopathy has been recognized (in some way) as a disease since the times of ancient Greece, when people would gaze at solar eclipses without protective eyewear. But as interesting as it is, and as good as the sun might feel sometimes, looking directly at bright lights can damage your retina.

On the bright side, solar retinopathy is preventable. It’s a smart idea to protect your eyes moving forward. Wear UV-blocking sunglasses when you’re outdoors on sunny days. And try not to look directly at the sun if you’re watching it rise or set. If you have questions or concerns about solar retinopathy, share them with your eye care specialist.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/07/2024.

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