What is diabetic eye disease?

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye problems that people with diabetes may develop. All these conditions can cause severe vision loss or even blindness.

Diabetic eye disease may include:
  1. Diabetic retinopathy: damage to the blood vessels in the retina.
  2. Cataract: clouding of the eye's lens. Cataracts develop at an earlier age in people with diabetes.
  3. Glaucoma: increase in fluid pressure inside the eye that leads to optic nerve damage and loss of vision. A person with diabetes is nearly twice as likely to get glaucoma as other adults.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness in American adults. It is caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina. In some people with diabetic retinopathy, retinal blood vessels may swell and leak fluid. In other people, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina. These changes may result in vision loss that can culminate in blindness.

Who is most likely to get diabetic retinopathy?

Anyone with diabetes can develop diabetic retinopathy. The longer someone has diabetes, the more likely he or she will get diabetic retinopathy. Between 40-45 percent of diabetics have some degree of diabetic retinopathy. If you have diabetes, you should have a dilated eye exam at least once a year by your ophthalmologist.

What are symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

Often there are no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Vision may not change until the disease becomes very advanced. Blurred vision may occur when the macula - the part of the retina that provides sharp, central vision - swells from the leaking fluid. This condition is called macular edema. If new vessels have grown on the surface of the retina, they can bleed into the eye, blocking vision or causing abrupt onset floaters. Even in advanced cases, the disease may progress a long way without symptoms. It is therefore essential for every diabetic to have at least an annual dilated screening examination.

Can diabetic retinopathy be treated?

Yes. Laser surgery and appropriate follow-up care can reduce the risk of blindness by 90 percent. However, laser surgery often cannot restore vision that has already been lost. Therefore, finding diabetic retinopathy early is the best way to prevent vision loss. In some cases, steroid injections are also used to reduce swelling in the macula.

Can diabetic retinopathy be prevented?

Not totally, but your risk can be greatly reduced. The Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) showed that better control of blood sugar level slows the onset and progression of retinopathy and lessens the need for medical and surgical interventions.

What can I do to protect my vision?

Finding and treating the disease early, before it causes vision loss or blindness, is the best way to control diabetic eye disease. So, if you have diabetes, make sure you get a dilated eye examination at least once a year. You must also control you blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight, as good cardiovascular health also benefits your eyes.