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Solar retinopathy: Retina burn from sunlight

Man shielding his eyes from the sun

Solar retinopathy is sun-related damage to the macula, which is the most sensitive portion of the retina of the eye. For this reason, it also is called solar maculopathy.

Essentially, solar retinopathy is a retina burn, similar to an intense sunburn of the skin. It can cause serious and permanent damage to your eyesight and even legal blindness.

Other (less-used) terms for solar retinopathy include photic retinopathy and eclipse retinopathy.

What causes solar retinopathy?

Solar retinopathy is caused by staring at the sun.

The risk of solar retinopathy increases significantly during a solar eclipse, because some people who want to witness the eclipse fail to wear appropriate safety eyewear when doing so.

Damage to the macula from solar retinopathy can occur in a matter of seconds — especially if you aren’t wearing sunglasses with high-quality protective lenses. 

When looking directly at the sun, its ultraviolet (UV) and high-energy blue light rays are focused directly on the very light-sensitive macula. Without filtration, these intense and highly focused light rays can quickly cause a retina burn in the macula that can result in permanent vision loss.

Similar retinal burns can be caused by staring directly at the beam of a laser pointer or other laser light source, depending on the intensity and wavelength of the laser beam and the duration of exposure.

However, a retina burn from a laser beam is technically not solar retinopathy, because it’s caused by a source of radiation other than the sun.    

Solar retinopathy symptoms

Signs and symptoms of solar retinopathy or a burned retina include:

  • Reduced visual acuity

  • Blurry vision in general

  • Central or paracentral blind spot in either or both eyes

  • Headache

  • Sensitivity to light

If you experience any of these solar retinopathy symptoms after staring at the sun or prolonged exposure to sunlight, contact an eye doctor and schedule a comprehensive eye exam.

SEE RELATED: When to visit a retina specialist

Is a retina burn permanent?

Depending on the severity of solar retinopathy or a retina burn, vision loss is often permanent.

For this reason, children should be advised to never stare at the sun. 

Also, for routine eye protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays, everyone should wear high-quality sunglasses that block 100% UV rays or eyeglasses with photochromic lenses outdoors.

Treatment and prevention

There is no effective medical treatment to cure solar retinopathy. 

In some cases, vision may improve without treatment over a period of weeks or months. But often, vision loss from solar retinopathy or a retina burn is permanent.  

The following treatments are recommended for coping with a burned retina:

  • Keep eyes rested as much as possible when experiencing symptoms

  • Avoid looking into bright lights, whether indoors or outdoors

  • Protect eyes from the sun by wearing UV protection

  • Limit screen exposure and protect eyes from harmful blue light

  • Follow up with an eye care professional

Each case of solar retinopathy may vary. Practicing these guidelines can help aid a burned retina, and some may help prevent damage from worsening or occurring in the first place.

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Gary Heiting, OD

Gary Heiting, OD, is a former senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 30 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear ... Read more