Total solar eclipse: 5 tips to protect your eyes

Aug. 11, 2017

By Dr. Paula E. Pecen

Eclipse fever is sweeping across the United States as skygazers prepare for a historic total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

An eerie darkness will spread across a 70-mile-wide arc in the U.S. during the middle of the day. The eclipse will cause temperatures to drop rapidly and create a beautiful array of colors from the sun’s atmosphere.

A child is shown with protective viewing glasses during a solar eclipse.
If you plan to look at the eclipse, be sure to protect your eyes. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

The path of totality, where the moon will completely cover the sun, will pass through a 70-mile wide stretch across Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. In Colorado and elsewhere in North America, we will see a partial eclipse.

The phase of the eclipse called totality lasts about two minutes and is the only time when it’s safe to view the eclipse without eye protection. But don’t take any chances. I advise anyone looking up at the sun during the eclipse to wear special glasses. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends using solar eclipse glasses designed to block the sun’s harmful rays and which meet international safety standards.

These glasses are available from places like Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics, Thousand Oaks Optical or TSE 17. Viewing through #14 welder’s glass is also an option to view the eclipse, and is darker than the shades worn by arc welders.

Do not wear solar eclipse glasses to look through a camera, binoculars or a telescope, as the sun can melt the filter and damage your eyes. Instead, use solar filters on your cameras, binoculars and telescopes.

Looking at the sun without protection for even a few seconds can cause permanent burns.

The eye’s lens acts as a magnifier and can focus the sun’s harmful rays on the retina to cause damage to the retina, just like focusing the rays of sun with a handheld magnifier can burn a hole through a piece of paper.

When I treat patients, I sometimes see crescent-shaped burns in the back of their eyes. Sometimes, these burns fade over time. But the damage can leave people with permanent blind spots.

This year’s total solar eclipse will be the first visible in the U.S. since 1979. The last time a total solar eclipse was visible from coast to coast in the U.S. was in 1918.

Naturally, people will want to look at the sun during this remarkable event.

If you’re planning to check out the eclipse on Aug. 21, follow these simple guidelines to protect your eyes:

  1. View the eclipse with special eclipse sunglasses.
  2. Regular sunglasses are NOT safe to view the eclipse.
  3. Keep eclipse sunglasses on at ALL times during eclipse viewing (except during totality when you can remove eye protection, but this is only visible for 70 miles across the U.S. and only lasts about 2 minutes.) If you are unsure of when totality is occurring, then do not remove your eclipse sunglasses.
  4. Be sure to provide all children with eclipse sunglasses and be sure they do not remove them during the event.
  5. If you experience vision loss after viewing of the eclipse, please see your nearest retina specialist for evaluation.

About Paula Pecen: Dr. Pecen is a retinal surgeon who recently joined UCHealth. She practices at the UCHealth Eye Center at Anschutz and in Boulder. She did her medical training at the Cleveland Clinic and at Duke University. Dr. Pecen especially enjoys her work because good vision adds so much to the quality of life for patients. As a retinal surgeon, she helps patients who are dealing with retinal detachment, diabetes and macular degeneration. Dr. Pecen loves Colorado and enjoys hiking with her husband and golden retriever.


About the author

UCHealth is an innovative, nonprofit health system that delivers the highest quality medical care with an excellent patient experience. With 24,000 employees, UCHealth includes 12 acute-care full-service hospitals and hundreds of physicians across Colorado, southern Wyoming and western Nebraska. With University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus as its academic anchor and the only adult academic medical center in the region, UCHealth pushes the boundaries of medicine, providing advanced treatments and clinical trials and improving health through innovation.