Hooray! Summer is here and many of us will be visiting the coast or countryside, or going away for a trip where we hope to enjoy nice sunny weather.
If you have ever laid down on the grass or beach and watched the clouds, you may well have inadvertently looked at the sun as it emerged from cover. In good weather you may look up at the lovely blue sky and also taken in the sun as its light and warmth filters down.
Throughout our lives there are many occasions when we might have looked at the sun but few people realize just how dangerous this can be. Due to the intense brightness of this major star in our lives, anyone who looks directly at the sun is at risk of real eye damage. There was serious medical concern during the eclipse of the sun in August 1999 when it was feared that people all over the UK would be looking at the sun as it went from light to dark.
Damage to the eye from direct sunlight is called solar retinopathy and it is not as rare as people might believe.
In the past many famous people suffered from the problem. Isaac Newton once looked at the sun in a mirror and reports indicate that he was blind for three days after and experienced after images for months.
The pupil or opening in the front of our eyes contains a lens. This lens constantly adjusts to focus the images we see directly onto the retina at the back of the eye as part of the sight process.
The retina is extremely delicate, a very thin tissue which is sensitive to light. When radiation (or sunlight) hits the lens in the eye, the lens focuses the rays directly onto the retina. This concentrated beam of light can burn the retina, destroying essential cells.
The problem is that there are no nerves in the retina to produce pain or discomfort, so you can be totally unaware of any damage occurring.
Problems only usually come apparent a few hours later, when your eyes may become watery and sore; you may feel discomfort with bright light; you may have difficulty in seeing shapes and detail in objects or you may even suffer a blind spot in your central vision.
If any of these occur, it is important to see help from a local optometrist who will be able to examine you and possibly determine the extent of any damage.
If the damage is mild, eyesight can return to normal; but severe damage can mean permanently sight reduction. There is no easy way to determine this and usually the level of damage can only be fully assessed after a period of weeks.
While at the moment there is no cure for solar retinopathy, quite a lot can be done to help people adjust to their new levels of vision. But prevention is, as always, better than cure so do heed warnings not to look at direct sunlight.
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