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A guide to watching today's total solar eclipse safely — from why glasses are essential to making sure you've got the proper pair

A woman looking up through a pair of special glasses.
Here's how to protect your eyes ahead of the solar eclipse on April 8. (Getty Images)

A total solar eclipse is coming to many parts of the United States, Mexico and Canada today, prompting a rush of travel plans by people hoping to get in the phenomenon’s path and see the spectacle. But experts are sounding the alarm: Safety first, solar eclipse second!

Staring at the sun can cause potentially permanent damage to your eyes and vision — yes, even if the moon is covering it. Here’s what to know about watching the solar eclipse, from the best ways to protect your vision to the extra precautions parents should take to protect children’s eyes during this major celestial event. According to NASA, the next total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous U.S. won't be until 2044 — so you'll want to do this one right.

👀 What can looking at a solar eclipse do to your vision?

Looking directly at the eclipse can do the same damage to your eyes as looking directly at the sun on a perfectly clear day. What makes an eclipse a more dangerous time for eye injuries, though, is that the sky and the surroundings will look dark during it. In reality, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays are every bit as powerful from behind the moon.

“If you go outside and look at the sun, it’s very bright, and you can’t do it for long,” Dr. Ronald Benner, president of the American Optometric Association (AOA), whose private practice is in Laurel, Mont., tells Yahoo Life. “But when we have a solar eclipse, the moon in front of the sun darkens it, so people are going to be pretty tempted because it’s not as harsh. But the problem is that you’re still getting high-intensity UV light that can burn and scar the retinal tissue.”

That can cause an injury known as solar retinopathy. The retina plays a crucial role in vision. It’s a highly light-sensitive layer of neural tissue that surrounds the back of the eye, connecting to the optic nerve and processing visual information.

Eclipse or not, when you look straight at the sun for an extended period, its UV radiation has a straight shot to the retina, “which is brain tissue,” cautions Benner. “Once brain tissue is damaged, it’s damaged.”

But it’s usually not painful right away. It might take two to three days before you feel the effects, which might include altered color vision, seeing spots or having blotchy vision, which may be permanent. Because there’s a delay in both pain and vision loss from staring at a solar eclipse, it is not really known how common this is, but Benner says he’s met a number of adults with the condition.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done after the eye is damaged from looking at a solar eclipse. “We don’t have great treatments,” Dr. Nicole Bajic, an ophthalmologist with the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Life. “People have tried steroids, but the data on that isn’t good. It’s more of a ‘tincture of time’ — if it’s going to improve with time, it will, but for others, it does not.”

😎 How can you safely watch the solar eclipse?

There’s really only one “do” for watching the solar eclipse, and lots of don’ts. The most important must-do is to watch through solar eclipse glasses. These are specially designed spectacles that are thousands — yes, thousands — of times darker than regular sunglasses, according to NASA.

Eclipse glasses have an ISO (a metric of sensitivity to light) of 12312-2, and real ones will be marked with that number. “If glasses are not stamped with that, they’re not approved for watching the eclipse,” Benner says. “And even if they are, you still want to make sure that they are from a reputable source.”

Scammers often sell fake glasses in the lead-up to eclipses, which can lead to permanent eye damage. The best way to be sure you’re getting the real thing is to buy them from the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) list of solar viewers and filters. If your glasses are the real deal, they will be very dark. Benner says that if you can put them on in your home and see a light that’s on, they’re not approved solar eclipse glasses.

Once you have approved glasses, you still need to use them correctly. When you go outside to see the eclipse, be sure to keep your head down, then put on your glasses and make sure they’re well positioned and secure before you look up to see the eclipse.

“You don’t want to look up and say, ‘Where is it?’ then put the glasses on,” Benner says.

Other don’ts: Don’t use regular sunglasses, double sunglasses, welding glasses, binoculars or telescopes to look at the eclipse. You also don’t get protection from a camera or a smartphone camera. If you want to photograph the eclipse, you’ll still need to wear eclipse glasses and fit your lens with a special filter, also available from the AAS list. You can buy or make solar optical projectors, including pinhole cameras, but be sure you follow instructions from the AAS.

👶 Take extra care with kids.

As exciting as a solar eclipse might be to your kids, keep in mind that they may not fully understand the risks of looking at the solar eclipse without protection, and the consequences could be with them for life. According to the AAS, the majority of people who sustain eye injuries during the eclipse are children and young adults.

“You can put the approved glasses on them, but make sure kids understand the rules,” says Benner. Several of the companies listed on the AAS’s website sell children’s solar eclipse glasses, which will ensure a good fit and that your kids’ eyes are securely covered.

But Benner and Bajic say parents need to be really honest with themselves about their children’s behavior. Young kids may not understand rules and consequences well; some may be prone to rule-breaking, and those with conditions like autism may have a harder time keeping the glasses on and following precautions. “If you don’t think they’re going to follow the rules, don’t take them out — be safe, not sorry,” adds Benner.

Bajic echoes Benner’s warning, and adds a reminder of a cardinal rule with kids: “The last thing you want to tell them is, ‘Don’t look up at the sky,’” because that often just makes a child want to do exactly the opposite.

Also, since today is a Monday, kids may be at daycare or school then, in which case parents should speak with their child's teacher or child care provider about plans for the day. Will kids be let outside for the solar eclipse? Will glasses be provided? Now's the time to get details and raise any concerns about how your child might respond.