Swelling, leaking blood vessels, or atypical growths can occur in your retina when you develop diabetic retinopathy. Recognizing specific changes can help your doctor diagnose your eye condition sooner.

People with diabetes can develop an eye condition known as diabetic retinopathy. This complication causes telltale signs in the light-sensitive layer of your retina.

Diabetic retinopathy damages your retina through a lack of adequate blood circulation, often because of higher blood sugars over time. Your blood vessels may swell, leak, or bleed. In the later stage, faulty blood vessels can grow where they are not supposed to.

This means the changes in your eyes will make your retina look different than a typical retina during an exam. Doctors may be able to catch your condition earlier if they dilate your eye and look for changes.

When blood sugar damages the tiny vessels in your eye, the vessels may leak fluid into surrounding tissues and cause swelling. The swelling can distort your vision or make it blurry. When the vessels leak blood, it’s called a hemorrhage or macular edema. Your blood vessels may change shape as they change or leak.

When doctors examine your retina, they may see more of the following in your retina versus a healthy retina:

  • swelling in blood vessels
  • blood vessels that are distorted or pinched
  • spots where blood is leaking
  • new, ayptical blood vessels (called neovascularization)
  • scar tissue
  • swelling in the part of the retina called the macula, responsible for sharp vision

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of adult blindness. It worsens over time and can cause vision loss or retinal detachment, among other problems.

Diabetic retinopathy has two main stages. The first is non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy. You may have few or no symptoms during this earlier stage.

The later stage is proliferative diabetic retinopathy. In this stage, your body may create new, faulty blood vessels in your eyes because they aren’t getting enough oxygen-rich blood. You may also form scar tissue on the surface of your retina.

Symptoms of this eye complication may include:

  • blurry vision
  • distorted vision
  • floaters
  • partial or total vision loss
  • a shadow in your vision caused by bleeding

Read more about diabetic retinopathy and its related symptoms.

Your doctors can treat and slow the condition if caught early.

Several treatments can help you manage the condition. In addition to suggesting the following treatments, doctors will encourage you to manage your blood sugar levels to prevent more damage.

Some treatment options include:

  • eye injections to prevent the growth of new, faulty blood vessels
  • lasers to stop vessels from leaking
  • surgery to remove affected tissues

The time it takes to develop diabetic retinopathy varies. The length of time you have diabetes is a risk factor. The longer you have it, the more you are at risk.

By some estimates, the worse your non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy, the higher the chance of it advancing to proliferative diabetic retinopathy. That’s the more advanced, vision-threatening stage.

If non-proliferative diabetic retinopathy is mild, there is a 6% chance of it progressing within a year. That chance increases to 20-40% if it’s moderate and 60% if already severe.

About 50% of people with type 1 or 2 diabetes will develop diabetic retinopathy. You can have the earlier stage a long time before you realize it. The longer you have had diabetes, the more your risk increases.

Other risk factors include:

  • high blood sugar levels over long periods
  • pregnancy
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • high cholesterol

The longer you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, the more likely you are to develop diabetic retinopathy. This condition damages the tiny blood vessels in your eye, which can result in vision loss. Doctors can examine your retina to look for changes caused by the condition, including damaged blood vessels, bleeding, swelling, scarring, and new vessels where they shouldn’t be.