Laser Pointer Safety

Posted on November 13, 2017

Laser Pointer Safety
By: Jeffrey Colburn, MD

Did you know that laser pointers present a real threat to your child's vision? Lasers, even in small laser pointer form, can cause burns on the retina inside the eye. The retina is the light sensitive layer of tissue on the inside of the back of the eyeball that serves as the film of the camera. Burns on the retina can result in permanent damage and blind-spots. We use lasers on the retina intentionally in ophthalmology to treat a variety of eye diseases when necessary, and we do so with great care. But it is possible to cause retinal injury accidentally if one were to look into a laser pointer directly or shine one into someone else's eyes. There have been documented cases of children and teenagers with just such self-inflicted injuries. Because a retinal laser burn is initially painless and the child may look directly into it, they may have a permanent loss of central vision. Not much can be done to treat these burns, so prevention is the key.

Laser pointer power is measured in milliwatts (mW). Powers of less than 5 mW are adequate for almost all practical applications of laser pointers and higher powers are more likely to cause eye injury. For this reason, it is not legal in the U.S. to sell laser pointers with a power of greater than 5 mW. However, many laser pointers are poorly or incorrectly labeled and more powerful ones are also illegally imported from foreign manufacturers and sold in the U.S. Even for low powered laser pointers, if someone were to look directly into one for more than 10-15 seconds, it could still cause permanent damage. Children have been known to do such things. Therefore it is wisest to keep all laser pointers away from young children and educate teenagers about the potentially blinding danger of them. So please be aware! Even one child blinded by a laser pointer is one too many.

Below is a link to a case report of a laser pointer injury published in the New England Journal of Medicine, including photos of what the retinal burns look like.