The condition is called solar retinopathy, and it occurs when bright light from the sun floods the retina on the back of the eyeball. The retina is home to the light-sensing cells that make vision possible. When they're over-stimulated by sunlight, they release a flood of communication chemicals that can damage the retina. This damage is often painless, so people don't realize what they're doing to their vision.
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The light of an eclipse really can damage your eyes — though warnings of total blindness are likely overstated.
Solar retinopathy can be caused by staring at the sun (regardless of its phase), but few people can stand to look directly at our nearest star for very long without pain. It does happen occasionally — medical journals record cases in which people high on drugs have stared at the sun for long periods of time, causing serious damage. Adherents of sun-worshipping religious sects are also victims. In 1988, for example, Italian ophthalmologists treated 66 people for solar retinopathy after a sun-staring ritual.
But during a solar eclipse, more people are at risk. With the sun partially covered, it's comfortable to stare, and protective reflexes like blinking and pupil contraction are a lot less likely to kick in than on a normal day.
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