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Eye Health

Updated 28 September 2020

Teen blasts away parts of retina after staring into laser pointer, marketed as pet toy

This incident serves as a reminder that even weak lasers can be dangerous.

  • A teen suffered significant damage to the retina after staring into a low-powered laser, marketed as a toy
  • While his vision improved, the lesions will not go away, his ophthalmologist says.
  • This serves as a reminder that even the weakest lasers have the ability to cause damage to the eyes

We know it’s dangerous to stare into a laser pointer, as the repercussions are well-documented in the medical world. However, one teen’s case serves as a reminder exactly how badly a laser pointer can damage the eyes.

In a medical case study, published in Retinal Cases & Brief Reports, doctors document the case of a teenager who stared directly into a laser pointer for several seconds while playing a game with friends.

This device was a laser pointer toy used for exercising pets. These types of laser pointers are often branded as low-powered and it is presumed that they can’t do extreme harm to the eye when you stare into them. However, in this case, the teen suffered significant retinal damage which included lesions and loss of the inner and outer segments of cone photoreceptors.

Blurred vision, partial vision loss

It was already five months after staring into the laser pointer that the boy visited an ophthalmologist with ongoing blurred vision and partial vision loss in his right eye.

The boy was unable to distinguish individual letters when reading text with his right eye while keeping his left eye closed.

While his vision steadily improved in both eyes, a high-resolution optical scanning system revealed the extent of damage done to both retinas. According to Ohio State University ophthalmologist Frederick Davidorf, entire regions of light-sensitive photoreceptors were “blasted away” by the laser.

“There is just nothing left there. The affected areas are devoid of cones,” Davidorf said. The patient was diagnosed with macular laser burns, but the visual loss was unexplained until the optical scan was performed.

While the boy’s vision is recovering, the damage to the retina cannot be undone, even though there was a slight decrease in the lesions. According to Davidorf, the scarring will always be there.

Danger of laser pointer toys

Davidorf hopes that this case serves as a warning. He also states that we underestimate exactly how powerful lasers, even weak ones, can be. While some research suggest that the risks are slightly overblown, this medical case serves as a reminder that there is still potential danger in even weaker laser toys.

"Handheld lasers can range in power from <5 mW (typical laser pointers) to >1 200 mW (high power blue lasers capable of lighting cigarettes or remotely igniting fireworks)," the case study states.

"Misuse can result in retinal injuries that can be localised to just the outer retina or may result in full-thickness macular holes."

The takeaway? Stay on the safe side and don’t point a laser into your own eye while entertaining your pets.

READ | Sweat bees found in Taiwanese woman's eye, feeding off her tears

READ | Laser pointers can cause serious eye damage in kids

READ | Lasers could damage your eyes

Image credit: Getty images 
 

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Optometrist

Megan Goodman qualified as an optometrist from the University of Johannesburg. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in ocular pathology and evidence based medicine as well as contact lenses.

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