Diabetes [DYE-uh-BEE-tees] is a disease that stops your body from making or using insulin. Insulin [in-SUH-lin] is a hormone your body uses to help glucose (sugar) get into your cells and give them energy. If your body doesn’t make or use enough insulin, too much glucose stays in your blood. Over time, high glucose levels can lead to problems with your heart, kidneys, nerves, gums, and teeth. Diabetes can also cause vision problems and blindness.
Diabetic eye disease can refer to many different vision problems that are caused by diabetes. These can include:
- Diabetic retinopathy [REH-tin-AH-puh-THEE]. This disease is caused by damaged blood vessels in your eye that harm the retina, the part of your eye that senses light and sends signals to your brain.
- Diabetic macular edema [MAH-kyoo-LUHR uh-DEE-muh]. The macula is the part of the eye that helps you see details. Diabetes can make this part of your eye swell, which can lead to vision loss or blindness.
- Cataracts [KAT-uh-rakts]. The lens in your eye helps you focus on things in your vision. Sometimes, these lenses can get cloudy, which is called a cataract. This can make your vision blurry or even cause blindness.
- Glaucoma [glaw-KO-muh]. This is a fluid buildup in the eye, which can sometimes be caused by diabetes. The fluid causes high pressure in your eye, leading to vision problems or blindness.
All of these diseases are different, but they can all cause serious problems with your vision, even blindness.
The symptoms of diabetic eye disease vary depending on which specific disease you have. Common symptoms include:
- Blurry vision
- Double vision
- Rings or flashing lights while your eyes are open or closed
- Blank spots where you can’t see anything
- Dark or floating spots in your eyes
- Pressure or pain in your eyes
- Not being able to see things out of the corners of your eyes (peripheral vision)
You should see a doctor right away if you think you might have diabetes since this disease can be dangerous or life-threatening without treatment.
If you already know you have diabetes, you should see your doctor for regular check-ups, which will give them a chance to find diabetic eye disease and other problems that can happen when you have diabetes. Finding these problems early can make treatment easier and more effective.
You might not know you have a diabetic eye disease since these conditions sometimes don’t have any symptoms in the early stages, so it’s important to get your eyes checked at least once a year, especially if you have diabetes. An ophthalmologist [OFF-thal-MAWL-uh-JIST], a doctor who specializes in eyes, can see the signs of diabetic retinopathy and other diabetic eye diseases even if you don’t have symptoms.
If your doctor thinks you might have a diabetic eye disease, they will do tests to check your vision and look for symptoms of these conditions. Some of these tests include:
- Visual acuity testing. Your doctor will test how good your vision is by asking you to read different-sized letters on a chart. They might also check how well you can see out of the corners of your eyes.
- Tonometry [toh-NAW-muh-TREE]. This test measures the amount of pressure in your eye. High eye pressure can be a sign of glaucoma or other diseases.
- Pupil dilation. Your doctor might use eye drops to make your pupil wider, which will let them look at your retina and optic nerve for damage or signs of disease.
- Optical coherence tomography[KO-heer-INS toh-MAH-gruh-FEE] (OCT). OCT uses special light waves to take pictures of parts of your body, like the eye.
For some of these tests, your doctor might refer you to an ophthalmologist, a doctor who specializes in the eye. During these tests, your doctor will look for signs of diabetic eye disease, like:
- Changes to blood vessels
- Leaking blood vessels
- Changes in your eye lens
- Damage to your optic nerve
If you have a diabetic eye disease, your doctor might recommend different treatments to help slow down the disease and reduce your symptoms. Treatments can include:
- Anti-VEGF medicine. These medicines block the growth of damaged blood vessels in the eye and can stop fluid from leaking out of your eye. This medicine is injected into your eye, but your doctor will give you a numbing medicine first so the needle won’t hurt.
- Laser treatment. Laser treatment makes tiny burns inside of your eye using a bright light. This can help close leaking blood vessels and can help stop your eye disease from getting worse.
- Vitrectomy [vih-TREK-tuh-MEE]. Your doctor can use this surgery to remove the clear gel from the inside of your eye, which can help with problems like severe bleeding or scar tissue in your eye.
- Cataract lens surgery. If you have cataracts, your doctor might order a surgery to remove the cloudy lens where the cataract is located. The surgeon can then replace that lens with an artificial one, which can bring back some of your vision.
The best way to prevent diabetic eye disease is to keep your diabetes under control. With the right treatment, your blood sugar levels can stay low, which reduces the damage to blood vessels in your eyes and other parts of your body. Other things you can do to prevent these diseases include:
- Quitting smoking if you smoke. Smoking can damage the blood vessels in your eye, making diabetic eye diseases progress faster.
- Having a dilated eye exam once a year. This will help your doctor find any problems early, giving you more time to get treatment.
Some diabetic eye diseases can’t be completely prevented, but it is possible to slow down the disease and reduce your risk of blindness up to 95% with the right treatment.