Aug. 9, 2017 -- The hype is true: Look directly at this month’s solar eclipse without good protection, and you can seriously damage your eyes. And not just for a little while.

Just ask Russell Van Gelder, MD, former president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

“I have one patient in his 60s who looked at the sun through a telescope when he was 9 years old and still has a central block in his vision,” says Van Gelder, chairman of the ophthalmology department at the University of Washington Medical School.

Your eyes wouldn't burst into flames. The impact of the sun’s rays is more like a branding iron. “The eye is actually a magnifier, and it is about 3 or 4 times stronger than most hand-held magnifying glasses,” Van Gelder says. And just as a magnifying glass can focus the energy of sunlight enough to set a piece of paper on fire, sunlight focused through the lens of your eye can scorch your retina with little or no warning.

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Millions will turn their eyes toward the sky on Aug. 21 as a total solar eclipse crosses North America for the first time in nearly a century.

Doctors and astronomers are warning people to protect their eyes from the sun, which be able to damage them until the moon covers it completely. Ahead of the eclipse, they’re trying to get the word out about proper protective glasses -- and warning consumers to beware of fakes.

“Even short periods gazing at the sun can cause damage,” says Van Gelder. “With the appropriate protection and knowing when it’s safe and not safe to look at the eclipse, you can still enjoy this pretty remarkable celestial event.”

First in More Than a Generation

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes directly between the Earth and the sun, casting its shadow on our planet. A total solar eclipse happens when the moon completely obscures the sun. This month’s event will be the first total eclipse visible from North America since 1979, and the first to cross from coast to coast since 1918, according to NASA.