Are There Any Effects of the Solar Eclipse on Human Health?

Although solar eclipses occur 2–3 times a year, they can rarely be viewed from the same place again. Additionally, the type of solar eclipse may differ. For example, if you missed the April 2024 total solar eclipse in Texas, you could view a partial solar eclipse in October 2024 in Hawaii. Hence, researchers, citizen scientists, and the public seize the opportunity to view solar eclipses when possible. This article discusses the effects of solar eclipses, safe solar eclipse viewing practices, and myths surrounding solar eclipses.

What is a solar eclipse?

A solar eclipse is a cosmic event when the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun. The moon temporarily covers the bright face of the Sun and casts its shadow on the Earth. People located in the umbra region of this shadow can view a total solar eclipse, whereas people in the penumbra region can see a partial solar eclipse.

Is the solar eclipse dangerous?

A solar eclipse can be dangerous if viewed without protective eye gear. In ancient times when safety measures were not understood, humans considered eclipses as perilous events. Now, with advanced predictions, individuals can take necessary precautions to safely observe solar eclipses.

Effects of a solar eclipse on human health

In the past few decades, humans have systematically studied the effects of solar eclipses on human and animal health. Based on scientific studies, below we provide the effects observed.

Eye safety (solar retinopathy)

Viewing the partial phases of a solar eclipse even for a brief second can harm the eyes. A case study series reported the occurrence of solar retinopathy. Solar retinopathy, an ophthalmic disorder, is characterized by blurred vision, areas of altered vision, or loss of vision in the central area, as well as headaches and sensitivity to light.

The prognosis for solar retinopathy varies. In some cases, symptoms resolve within three months, while for others, it may take up to a year. In extreme cases, individuals may suffer permanent loss of central vision. Therefore, doctors strongly emphasize the importance of using protective eyewear during solar eclipse viewing.

Circadian rhythm disruption

As light and darkness alternate during the day and nighttime, they provide cues to human bodies for various physiological functions. Scientists have not studied the disruption of the circadian rhythm during solar eclipse in humans. However, this phenomenon is observed in the animal kingdom.

Researchers have reported circadian rhythm disruption in insects. For instance, ground crickets, cicadas, and other insects ceased or reduced their call activity during the totality of the solar eclipse. As light levels dropped and temperatures decreased, nocturnal insects such as tree crickets and field crickets became audible.

Another study noticed altered behaviors in zoo animals such as baboons, gorillas, giraffes, flamingos, and lorikeets during a solar eclipse. These animals demonstrated apparent anxiety and began to follow nocturnal behaviors like returning to the roosts.

Emotional and psychological effects

Renowned authors, including Shakespeare in his play Othello, have used eclipse as a metaphor for psychological darkness. However, we have not found scientific reports of mental and emotional disorders occurring during an eclipse.

Social media can provide real-world data to understand certain aspects of the emotional and psychological effects of the solar eclipse. In the X (formerly Twitter) post analysis, researchers reported people were in awe of the solar eclipse. They had less self-focus, greater sociality, affiliation, collective focus, and humility in their tweets about the eclipse compared to users not in the path of totality.

Temperature and humidity changes

Research has shown that during an eclipse, the atmospheric temperature typically drops by 6–7 ºC (approx. 42–48 ºF), and humidity increases by 12% of the daily mean. The light illumination drops and complete darkness may be observed near the totality of the eclipse. However, research studies have not reported any effects on humans due to the change in temperature and humidity during a solar eclipse.

Skin health

During a solar eclipse, people tend to be outdoors for a prolonged period, which may cause photodamage to the skin or damage due to the ultraviolet light. The UV rays can cause sunburn and increase the risk of skin cancer. They can also accelerate the process of aging, leading to sagging skin and wrinkles. However, these are typical effects of sunlight exposure, and further research is needed to understand the specific impact of solar eclipses on the skin.

Safety precautions while watching a solar eclipse

Since solar eclipse can have adverse effects on eyes and skin, it is important to follow safety precautions while viewing solar eclipse.

  • Proper eye protection. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has suggested using safe solar viewing glasses or eclipse sunglasses. Do not use regular sunglasses instead of eclipse sunglasses. These eclipse sunglasses need to meet the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard and have specific filters. These filters reduce visible sunlight to safe levels and block most of solar ultraviolet and infrared radiation.
  • Supervise children. Children need to be closely supervised during solar eclipse viewing. Information about solar eclipse and precautions related to solar eclipse need to be communicated in age-appropriate language. Younger children may need help with wearing the eclipse sunglasses.
  • Pinhole projection technique. When direct viewing is not possible, indirect viewing using a colander or pinhole projection is possible. A pinhole projector is an index card with a hole punched in the center. This projector can project the image of the eclipse on a nearby surface such as a floor or wall.

Common myths and facts about solar eclipse

While solar eclipses are widely recognized, misconceptions about this phenomenon persist. Let's explore some of the most common ones.

Solar eclipses are dangerous to pregnant women

Fact: Not backed by science. In various cultures, there's a belief that solar eclipses pose risks to pregnant women, potentially leading to anatomical defects in newborns such as a harelip or vision loss due to the mother's exposure to the eclipse. However, these assertions lack scientific validation.

One letter to the scientific journal editor has reported a case of the miscarriage of one fetus in a twin pregnancy carried by a 45-year-old female with an acute attack of asthma during a solar eclipse. However, the generalizability of such observations needs to be proven by research. No cohort studies have reported adverse effects of solar eclipse on pregnant women.

Looking at a solar eclipse can lead to blindness

Fact: It depends. Looking at the partial phases of the solar eclipse before and after totality without any protective eye gear can lead to serious eye injury. Using eclipse sunglasses or a telescope with solar filters can make solar eclipse viewing safe.

Solar eclipses have profound effects on human health

Fact: It depends. Rigorous scientific studies have not reported exacerbation or causation of any diseases or disorders during the solar eclipse. However, people may experience solar retinopathy or skin diseases after direct sun exposure during an eclipse.

It is unsafe to go outside during a solar eclipse

Fact: Not backed by science. A solar eclipse can be viewed outdoors. However, when people are outdoors viewing a solar eclipse for several hours, they are exposed to direct sunlight. For skin safety, it is advisable to wear sunscreen and protective gear such as a hat.

In summary, a total solar eclipse is a rare and remarkable event, offering a valuable opportunity for scientific observation. However, direct viewing of the partial phases of a solar eclipse can cause harm to our eyes. It's crucial to use eclipse sunglasses that meet the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for eye protection. Additionally, when using telescopes or binoculars to view the eclipse, ensure they are equipped with solar filters. When outdoors during the eclipse, apply sunscreen with a high SPF for skin protection. If you accidentally view even a fraction of the partial phases directly, contact your doctor immediately.

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