The lens of your eye is normally clear. When it becomes cloudy, it is called a cataract. Although cataracts do not spread from one eye to the other, it sometimes occurs in both eyes. This is referred to as bilateral cataracts.
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 larger 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 of cataracts is blurry or cloudy vision. There is 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 prescription
If you are experiencing symptoms of cataracts, you should make an appointment to see your eye care professional.
Most of the time, cataracts are the result of aging. It occurs most often in people over age 60. By age 75, about a third of the population have developed cataracts that affect vision (Congdon, et al., 2004).
Other causes include:
- family history of cataracts (congenital cataracts)
- high blood pressure
- eye injury (traumatic cataracts), inflammation, or surgery
- 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 not known.
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 are 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 is no need to rush. Delaying surgery does not make the condition harder to treat. Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed procedures in the United States. It is 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 will require no 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 infection, swelling, bleeding, and vision problems. The risk of retinal detachment increases slightly with cataract surgery, especially if you have other eye problems like nearsightedness (myopia). If you notice floaters in your field of vision following cataract surgery, this could be a sign of retinal detachment. This is a medical emergency. Contact your doctor right away.
Ninety percent of people who have cataract surgery report improved vision.
Some lifestyle choices can decrease your chances of developing cataracts. These include:
- Avoid direct sunlight and wear sunglasses.
- Eat a diet rich in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and antioxidant-rich foods.
- Don’t smoke.
- Take care of other health problems.
Everyone should have his or her eyes checked regularly. Once you reach the age of 60, this should include a dilated eye exam at least once every two years.