Preparing for the total solar eclipse: What ophthalmologists should know


A total solar eclipse will cross 15 states on April 8, 2024. Durga Borkar, MD, MMCi shares how to communicate eye safety tips and prepare to treat anyone who does present with solar retinopathy.

(Image credit: AdobeStock/oobqoo)

(Image credit: AdobeStock/oobqoo)

As much of the country prepares to witness the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, ophthalmologists are sharing their expertise on the importance of eye safety. Modern Retina spoke with Durga Borkar, MD, MMCi, Verana Medical Advisor, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and Assistant Professor in Population Health Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, about how to communicate safety measures to patients and the public. She also shared insights on what may be coming for ophthalmologists in the coming weeks as cases of solar retinopathy may rise.

We started the conversation highlighting how Borkar’s current patient population may be preparing for the eclipse. She shared, “I am a retina specialist, so a lot of the patients that I see are already very sensitive to sunlight and different lighting conditions. The health of their eyes has already been damaged due to conditions like age related macular degeneration (AMD), so the sunlight impacts them quite a bit.”

She continued, pivoting to how the general public may approach eye safety differently, especially around events like the eclipse. She said, “When we think about the solar eclipse, it's a different population of patients that we're trying to reach. A lot of them don't actually have any retina pathology and may not be seeing a retina specialist or even an eye doctor regularly. Efforts to reach them and talk about sun safety are a little bit different, because they may not be having one-on-one conversations with their eye doctor. Instead, professional societies or campaigns on the local news can reach the average person, who may have no eye issues and wants to see the solar eclipse.”

She noted that UV protection for the eyes is always important, but during events like an eclipse, UV protection becomes crucial. Borkar highlighted the importance of proper eye wear for this event and how ophthalmologists are work to protect the eye health of the community. She said, “it's important for us to educate patients that we see about the importance of appropriate eyewear. You know, there are commercially available eclipse glasses that are manufactured specifically for observing the solar eclipse. Since we're not seeing all of the patients in these weeks leading up to, April 8, it's really important that we are thinking about more mass forms of communication, whether that's social media, the internet, or professional societies.”

As more media attention focuses on this astronomical event, there are rumors and inaccurate information. This means that ophthalmologists can be a trusted source to guide people in protecting their vision. She noted it’s important to debunk some of these myths around eye safety, “Sometimes people think there are safe filters that they can use to watch the eclipse. Some people think it's safe to look at the sun through a camera lens or binoculars. These will not protect your eyes; you still need separate eclipse glasses. Looking polarizing filter or any kind of like X-ray film to look through and look at the solar eclipse is not safe. It's important for people to get accurate information when watching the eclipse.”

While preventative measures are always the first defense against vision loss or eye damage, there may be an increased number of patients presenting with symptoms in the coming weeks. We asked Borkar how should ophthalmologists prepare for cases of solar retinopathy or other damage that they might see following the eclipse event or in general?

Borkar shared some of her personal experience around the last eclipse event, saying, “I was a fellow the last time there was a solar eclipse, and the number of phone calls that we got afterwards of people's saying, ‘I watched the eclipse and now things just seem a little bit off with my vision,' really increased. I would imagine that after this upcoming eclipse, it would be the same.”

As patients make these calls to ophthalmologists, there are a few things to keep in mind. Borkar said, “Some of these patients have had differing levels of exposure watching the eclipse, and may or may not have been wearing appropriate eyewear. In general, the approach is to see all of these people. It is not necessarily an emergency, but this is a big public health concern because once you have solar retinopathy or damage from the sun to your retina, that damage is pretty much irreversible. We can get patients in and do imaging to look and see if they have damage to their retina, but there isn't really a treatment. We want to get them in so that we can give them a diagnosis, or in a lot of cases, peace of mind, because we don't actually see anything.”

With the efforts focused on communicating eye safety and preventative measures, Borkar highlighted a few key resources for helpful information for ophthalmologists and the public.

“The American Academy of Ophthalmology has always been great at communicating, both with its physician members, but also with patients. The American Society of Retina Specialists also has a patient education series, and in the last few weeks, they've come out with a special safety edition on the solar eclipse. And I think that both of those resources are great. They are geared towards patients and use terms that you wouldn't have to be medical to understand. They explain both how to safely watch the eclipse and then also what it can look like if you have damage from the sun to your retina.” Borkar said.

Modern Retina would like to thank Durga Borkar, MD, MMCi, for her time in this interview and her insights in preparing for the solar eclipse.

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