Chances are you didn't suffer eye damage from this week's solar eclipse, even if you glanced at the sun without the right protection. But if you're worried enough about your exposure to seek medical help, the visit should be covered under your health insurance.
You can see either of two eye doctors — an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. And while you may have a vision-care plan that covers visits associated with getting glasses or corrective lenses, regular health insurance plans typically cover visits to these specialists prompted by any medical issue such as eye injuries, cataracts or even pink eye. The snag? There's precious little a doctor can do about damage to the retina from the sun's rays; the eye simply needs time to heal, which it often does fully.
Here's what you need to know if you're concerned about eye damage from the eclipse.
Very few gazers are injured
For most eclipse spectators using special viewing glasses or pinhole projectors, the concern is very minimal. Only if you stared at length, and without any protection, at the partial eclipse could you have burned the macula part of your eye — a condition known as solar retinopathy.
How long is long enough to damage the eye? There's no firm consensus from eye experts, although most agree that brief glances, like the one the president stole outside the White House, are unlikely to cause damage.
By now, you'd probably know if your vision was affected by exposure to an eclipse. Retinal damage can take several days to manifest, said Dr. Jonathan Chiou, an optometrist in New York. A British study of the 1999 solar eclipse found that half of the 70 reported cases of visual loss appeared within two days of the eclipse. Common symptoms are blurry, dark spots that appear in your vision.
You can see either of the two medical specialists in eyes
As an optometrist, Dr. Chiou said he would also refer the patient to an ophthalmologist, specifically a retinal specialist, for follow-up observations. But getting an initial diagnosis from an optometrist is a good idea because getting an appointment is often easier and quicker than with an ophthalmologist. Many optometrists take appointments at optical stores like LensCrafters. Keep in mind, however, that your insurance may require a referral from your doctor to the specialist, even if that isn't a requirement for seeing an optometrist to get corrective eyewear under a vision-care plan.
Treatment options are limited at best
Your visit to the doctor may do little except confirm that damage has indeed occurred. "If we see a patient who has damage from UV rays, we can ease discomfort by giving lubricating drops," says Dr. Chiou. "Then we just wait it out and check back for progress."
Dr. Chiou says the damage can be temporary or permanent, and it can take as little as a month up to one year before you see any improvement. However, that British study of the 1999 eclipse offers hope. After six months, there was no continued visual loss in any of its subjects, even though retinal abnormalities had been confirmed in more than 80% of them.
The doctor visit will most likely be an eye exam
If you've been fitted for glasses or contacts, you're familiar with the customary annual eye examination, which includes a retinal examination after the doctor dilates your pupils. This same test would help reveal if your eyes suffered any retinal damage from the solar eclipse.
Since the purpose of the exam is focused on checking the overall health of your eye — and not whether your prescription has changed — it is covered under health insurance, Dr. Chiou said. Any co-pays also can be covered by money in your flexible savings account or health savings account.