The lenses of your eyes are normally clear. When they become cloudy and opaque, these are called cataracts. Although cataracts don’t necessarily spread from one eye to the other, they usually occur in both eyes (bilateral cataracts). The rate and degree of development may vary between the two eyes.
Your lens is located behind the colored part of your eye (iris) and the pupil. The lens helps to focus light. When you have a cataract, light is deflected or blocked as it passes through the lens, blurring your vision. Cataracts tend to grow thicker (or denser) over time, further impairing vision.
Cataracts are often caused by aging, but can also be due to other health problems like diabetes. Surgery for cataracts usually results in improved vision.
The most noticeable symptom associated with cataracts is blurred or cloudy vision. There’s generally no pain. Other symptoms include:
- poor night vision
- glare or a halo effect around lights
- colors appear to be faded or yellowed
- double vision
- frequent need to change eyewear prescriptions
If you’re experiencing symptoms of cataracts, you should make an appointment to see your eye doctor.
Most of the time, cataracts are the result of aging. It occurs most often in people over age 60, although many cases are reported in people in their 40s and 50s. By age 75, about a third of the population have developed cataracts that affect vision.
Other causes include:
- family history of cataracts (congenital cataracts)
- high blood pressure
- eye injury (traumatic cataracts), inflammation, or surgery
- prolonged use of corticosteroid medications
- excessive alcohol consumption
- excessive exposure to sunlight
- exposure to radiation from X-rays or radiation therapy (radiation cataracts)
Sometimes the cause is unknown.
Cataracts are usually diagnosed during an eye exam that may include:
- an eye chart that measures your distance vision (visual acuity test)
- eye dilation exam to examine the back of your eyes
- eye pressure measurement (tonometry)
- slit lamp exam to view eye structure and detect abnormalities
If you’re in the early stages of cataracts, you may be able to improve your vision with new eyeglasses, magnifying lenses, anti-glare lenses, or better lighting. It might be advisable to avoid driving at night.
Surgery is the most common treatment as cataracts progress, but there’s no need to rush. Delaying surgery doesn’t make the condition harder to treat. Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed procedures in the United States. It’s usually done as an outpatient procedure, using a local anesthetic.
In cataract surgery, the cloudy lens is removed and replaced with a plastic lens implant. You won’t be able to feel the implant and it won’t require special care.
After surgery, you may experience some minor discomfort, light sensitivity, itching, or fluid discharge. These symptoms should go away in a few days.
In people who have bilateral cataracts, the surgery is usually performed on one eye at a time, with the surgeries scheduled four to eight weeks apart.
Risks of Cataract Surgery
Side effects and risks are rare but include:
- ocular problems such as retinal detachment
The risk of retinal detachment only increases slightly with cataract surgery, especially if you have other eye problems like nearsightedness, also known as myopia. If you notice floaters in your field of vision following cataract surgery, this could be a symptom of retinal detachment and is considered a medical emergency. Contact your doctor right away.
Ninety percent of people who have cataract surgery report improved vision thereafter.
Some lifestyle choices can decrease your chances of developing cataracts. These include:
- avoiding direct sunlight and wearing sunglasses
- eating a diet rich in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and antioxidant-rich foods
- not smoking
- taking care of other health problems associated with developing cataracts
Everyone should have their eyes checked regularly. Once you reach the age of 60, this should include a dilated eye exam at least once every two years.