Understanding Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic eye disease

Diabetic Eye Disease: What You Need to Know

Diabetes may increase your risk of developing several serious eye diseases, whether you have Type 1 or 2 diabetes. Without prompt treatment, an eye disease may damage your vision or even cause blindness. Carefully controlling your blood sugar and learning the warning signs of diabetic eye disease can help you avoid vision loss.

When Blood Sugar Rises

Blurry vision is often one of the first signs of diabetes. The symptom occurs when the lens in your eye swells in response to a higher-than-normal blood sugar level. The lens, a clear, flexible disc located inside your eye behind your iris, focuses light rays on your retina, the light-sensing layer of cells that lines the back of your eye. If the lens becomes swollen, the light rays are disrupted and your vision blurs.

Although your vision usually returns to normal once your blood sugar drops, it's not a good idea to ignore bouts of blurry vision. If you don't lower your blood sugar level with dietary changes and/or medication, blurriness will continue, and you may increase your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy and several other eye diseases.

Four Eye Diseases That May Affect Your Eyes If You Have Diabetes

People who have diabetes are at an increased risk of developing these eye diseases:

  • Diabetic Retinopathy. Diabetes causes blood vessels in your retina to leak fluids or blood and may also trigger the formation of new, abnormal vessels. Both of these changes can interfere with clear vision, although you may not notice any changes in your vision during the first stage of the disease. One-third of people 40 and older who have diabetes have diabetic retinopathy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Glaucoma. Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, the pathway between your eyes and your brain, and can cause permanent vision loss. The trouble starts when the pressure inside your eye becomes too high. Like diabetic retinopathy, the disease doesn't usually cause symptoms at first.
  • Cataracts. Cataracts occur when the normally clear lens becomes cloudy, causing dim or blurred vision, light sensitivity, glare and color changes. Although cataracts often occur due to aging, people who have diabetes are more likely to develop them.
  • Diabetic Macular Edema. Swelling in the macula, the part of the retina responsible for central and color vision, can also occur if you have diabetes. If edema isn't treated promptly, permanent damage to your central vision can occur.

Diabetic Eye Disease Symptoms

In most cases, you won't notice any change in your vision during the earliest stages of diabetic eye disease. Unfortunately, by the time you do notice symptoms, the damage may be irreversible. Symptoms vary depending on the type of eye disease but can include:

  • Blurred Vision, Either Constant or Intermittent
  • Dark or Missing Spots in Your Vision
  • Flashing Lights
  • Sudden Increase in Floaters
  • Cloudy or Dim Vision
  • Sensitivity to Lights and Glare
  • Frequent Changes to Your Eyeglass Prescription
  • Changes in Color Vision

Call your eye doctor as soon as possible to schedule an appointment if you experience any of these symptoms. If you suddenly notice blank or dark spots in your vision, go to the emergency room immediately.

Reducing Your Risk of Eye Disease

These steps can help you lower your risk of diabetic retinopathy:

  • Embracing a Healthy Diet. Prevent blood sugar spikes by eating a low-carb diet that's high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, poultry, and fish.
  • Taking Medications as Instructed. Don't skip your diabetes medication, even if you feel fine. Failing to take insulin or other medications as prescribed can result in blood sugar fluctuations that may increase your likelihood of developing eye diseases.
  • Watching Your Weight. Obesity can be a factor in diabetes and many other diseases. Shedding extra pounds sensibly may help extend your life and lower your diabetic eye disease risk.
  • Quitting Smoking. Giving up your tobacco habit offers multiple benefits, including better eye health.
  • Visiting the Eye Doctor Annually. During annual eye exams, your eye doctor can spot changes in your eyes that can occur if you have a diabetic eye disease. Dilation is an important part of a comprehensive eye exam and allows your eye doctor to view your retina, macula, lens, and optic nerve clearly. Since diabetic eye diseases can be symptomless at first, these visits are crucial to your eye health.

Protect your sight with regular eye exams. Contact us to schedule your next appointment.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Diabetes Statistics Report

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Diabetic Eye Disease

American Academy of Ophthalmology: Diabetes Eye Disease, 1/28/19

American Optometric Association: Diabetic Retinopathy

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