A person cannot stare at the sun directly for long. It causes increasing discomfort, and for good reason: Looking at the sun is harmful to and dangerous for your eyes. Eye diseases like cataracts, photokeratitis, macular degeneration and eye-related cancers are all triggered by over exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UVR) and blue light. Staring at the sun causes temporary blindness. Permanent blindness can also happen, but that rarely happens. But even partial impairment can be permanent.
Solar Retinopathy: Does Staring at The Sun Damage Your Eyes?
Staring at the sun even for a few seconds can damage the retina. This condition is called solar retinopathy, and it can happen even if you are watching a solar eclipse.
Staring at the sun exposes your eyes to UV rays, which affect your eyes even when there is not full sun and clouds shield the sun’s heat. Any light that gets into your eyes, including the UV light, goes to the retina, which converts light into neural signals and sends them to the brain for interpretation.
Because the retina does not have pain receptors, you will not feel any pain when the damage occurs. But you will notice a problem with your vision after a few hours or days. If you continue gazing at the sun regularly, the problem can get worse with time.
How Does Staring at The Sun Damage Your Eyes?
Prolonged exposure to UV rays can lead to eye problems. It is not clear what causes macular degeneration in older adults, but some scientists believe long-term exposure to the sun can worsen it.
Other eye conditions linked directly to sun exposure include:
- Photokeratitis: This is similar to skin sunburn, but it affects the eye’s cornea. Although it’s a temporary problem, it can cause pain, inflammation, blurry vision, and headache.
- Cataracts: Sun exposure can cause cataracts, a clouding of the lens that typically happens with age. When it occurs, your vision becomes blurry.
- Pterygium: This is a growth that appears on the clear part of the cornea. As a result of excessive sun exposure, it requires surgery to cure.
- Pinguecula: A yellowish raised growth is caused by long-term exposure to the sun. It occurs on the conjunctiva and can lead to redness and irritation.
Symptoms of Eye Damage from The Sun
Symptoms of retinopathy likely will not appear immediately, and when they do, they can arrive in one eye or both eyes. Depending on the length of exposure, symptoms may be mild or severe. Mild symptoms include:
- Sore eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Watery eyes
Severe symptoms include the following:
- Blurry or distorted vision
- Decreased color vision
- Development of one or more blind spots on central vision
- Permanent eye damage
- Difficulty recognizing shapes
When to See a Doctor
You should see your doctor if you experience unusual symptoms or any symptoms mentioned above. Since gazing at the sun can cause several types of damage, your doctor will examine you to determine the kind and extent of damage you have. You should also see your doctor when symptoms fail to improve or when they get worse.
Solar retinopathy has no standard treatment. Your vision may return to normal in one to 12 months. Some people may never recover from the condition. It’s best to visit your ophthalmologist to follow up on your recovery. You can support your healing by:
- Resting your eyes when you have the symptoms
- Avoiding looking at bright lights
- Avoiding staring at screens and exposing your eyes to blue light
If your eye damage involves cataracts, pinguecula, or pterygium, your doctor can treat you through surgery. Photokeratitis and solar retinopathy usually disappear on their own.
No effective treatment is available for retinopathy. Prevention is the best way to be safe. Prevent solar retinopathy by:
- Minimizing the time you spend outdoors and sun gazing
- Wearing wide-brimmed hats when outdoors to protect your eyes from UV rays
- Wearing sunglasses that can filter UV light
- Using approved eclipse glasses when watching the solar eclipse
- Avoiding looking at the sun using regular sunglasses, binoculars, or telescopes
Sunglasses are considered a first and best line of defense against the sun’s UV rays. Medical experts highly recommend sunglasses for children because of the cumulative effects that UV rays have on corneas and lenses. Children’s eyes transmit high levels of UV to their crystalline lens and retina, laying the foundation for increased vision issues as the child grows up.
While much research is accumulated about the damaging effects of the sun’s rays on our skin — to the point where skin doctors know how much protection is needed to prevent burns and long-term cancers — data about the eyes is lacking. So is a widely accepted definition of how much SPF is needed for eye protection.
Can looking at the sun make you go blind?
Looking at the sun rarely causes permanent blindness. However, it can cause serious eye damage, including retinopathy. You can recover from retinopathy without treatment. But some damage can be permanent.
How long does it take to go blind from staring at the sun?
Staring at the sun at any time of the day for 100 seconds without glasses can cause permanent damage to the retina. This damage may not cause total blindness, but it can cause an untreatable partial loss of sight.
Photokeratitis. (December 2020). Cleveland Clinic.
Sun exposure to the eyes: predicted UV protection effectiveness of various sunglasses. (October 2018.) Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.
Ultraviolet damage to the eye revisited: eye-sun protection factor (E-SPF), a new ultraviolet protection label for eyewear. (December 2013). Clinical Ophthalmology.
New Research Sheds Light on How UV Rays may Contribute to Cataract. (June 2014). National Eye Institute.
Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health. (April 2008). Environmental Health Perspectives.
Solar Retinopathy: Visual Prognosis in 20 Cases. (February, 1978). Israel Journal of Medical Sciences.
Pinguecula. American Optometric Association.
Last Updated July 20, 2023
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