Preventing Diabetes-Related Eye Problems
Learn about diabetic eye disease and how you can help lower your risk.
Having diabetes puts you at an increased risk for blindness and eye problems. You can help keep eye problems at bay by keeping your blood glucose levels and your blood pressure well-controlled and by having regular eye exams.
Diabetes causes blood vessel damage throughout the body, including the blood vessels of the eyes. Blood vessel damage develops over time from both high blood sugar and high blood pressure. The longer you have diabetes, the greater your chances of having diabetic-related eye problems.
Many tiny blood vessels in and around the eye nourish the retina and other parts of the eye. When these blood vessels become damaged, the retina can't function well and your vision may become affected.
Besides damage to the retina, over time, high blood sugar and high blood pressure can damage other parts of the eye including the macula, optic nerve, lens and vitreous.
Potential eye problems
Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye problems that can affect people with diabetes:
Diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness in adults in America. It causes damage to the blood vessels in the retina and usually affects both eyes. While there are no symptoms in the early stages, it can be detected during an eye exam.
Damaged blood vessels can cause fluid to leak into the macula, the part of the retina responsible for extra-sharp vision and focusing. This causes the macula to swell (macular edema). Macular edema can occur at any stage of diabetic retinopathy.
Abnormal blood vessels can also develop on the retina and on the vitreous gel inside the eye. These blood vessels can leak blood, blurring the vision. This is the most advanced stage of diabetic retinopathy.
Glaucoma is an increase in fluid pressure inside the eye that pinches the optic nerve, which is responsible for carrying visual information from the eye to the brain. This pressure causes optic nerve and retinal damage, which can lead to vision loss and blindness. People with diabetes are nearly twice as likely to develop glaucoma than people who don’t have diabetes. And the longer you have had diabetes, the greater your risk for glaucoma. Risk also increases with age.
Glaucoma typically has no early symptoms. By the time you notice a change in your vision, a lot of nerve damage has likely occurred. Though sight can’t be restored, treatment can slow or stop further vision loss.
Cataracts are the clouding of the eye's lens. This blocks light from reaching the retina. It can cause vision to become blurred or dimmed or cause double vision. Unlike other diabetic eye diseases, eyesight can often be restored through surgery.
People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop cataracts as those who do not have the disease. Cataracts tend to form at an earlier age, around middle age, in people with diabetes.
How to reduce your risk
People with diabetes need to take extra care to prevent eye problems:
- Closely follow your diabetes treatment plan to keep blood sugar levels under control.
- Keep your blood pressure in check.
- Get regular eye exams, even if your sight is fine. Look for an eye care professional who cares for people with diabetes. Have your eyes dilated and examined once a year or as often as your doctor suggests. Be sure your doctor checks for cataracts and glaucoma.
- If you are pregnant and have diabetes, see an eye doctor during the first three months of your pregnancy. Your eye care professional will then advise how frequently you may need eye checks both during pregnancy and for a year after giving birth. If you are planning to get pregnant, ask your doctor if you should have an eye exam.
- Don't smoke. If you do, quit.
By Susan G. Warner, Contributing Writer
American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes 2015. Accessed: October, 19, 2015.
American Diabetes Association. Eye complications. Accessed: October 19, 2015.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your eyes healthy. Accessed: October 19, 2015.
National Eye Institute. Diabetic retinopathy defined. Accessed: October 19, 2015.
Last Updated: October 19, 2015