Macular degeneration and retinal detachment are two conditions that affect the retina and can cause vision loss. The retina is a layer of special cells at the back of your eye that converts light to electrical signals.

Macular degeneration is the age-related breakdown of the central part of your retina called the macula.

Retinal detachment occurs when your retina is pulled away from the back of your eye. It can onset (appear) suddenly and requires immediate emergency medical attention to avoid permanent vision loss.

Here, we examine the similarities and differences between these two conditions.

Macular degeneration and retinal detachment can both cause loss of vision. Macular degeneration tends to onset slowly, while retinal detachment onsets quickly.

Macular degeneration symptoms

Macular degeneration symptoms typically appear in your 50s or 60s. It occurs in three stages:

  • Early stage: Macular degeneration doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages.
  • Intermediate stage: You may or may not have mild symptoms in the intermediate stage. Symptoms can include:
    • slight blurriness in your central vision
  • Late stage: In the late stage, you may develop more severe symptoms such as:
    • straight lines may look curved
    • a blurry area near the center of your vision
    • seeing blank spots in your central vision
    • colors may look less vibrant
    • worsening night vision

Types of macular degeneration

Macular degeneration is subdivided into two types:

  • Dry macular degeneration: Dry macular degeneration occurs due to a thinning of your macula. It tends to progress slowly over many years and makes up about 80% of cases.
  • Wet macular degeneration: Wet macular degeneration occurs when atypical blood vessels grow in the back of your eyes. It usually causes faster vision loss but is easier to treat.
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Retinal detachment symptoms

Retinal detachment is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.

Symptoms onset suddenly within hours or days. They can include:

Here’s a look at the causes of macular degeneration and retinal detachment.

Macular degeneration causes

Macular degeneration is caused by age-related changes to your retina. It’s very common and affects about 11 million Americans.

Risk factors for macular degeneration include:

  • family history of the condition
  • smoking
  • ultraviolet (UV) light exposure
  • poor nutrition
  • lack of exercise
  • White ethnicity

Retinal detachment causes

Retinal detachment is most commonly caused by age-related changes to your retina. It’s more common among people with a family history. Underlying causes and risk factors include:

Macular degeneration can cause retinal detachment. Retinal detachment may occur in people with both dry and wet macular degeneration.

No reverse link has been identified.

It’s important to see an eye doctor any time you notice changes to your vision, such as:

  • blurriness
  • trouble reading
  • trouble seeing at night
Medical emergency

Retinal detachment can cause permanent vision loss. Go to an emergency room or urgent care if you develop symptoms, such as

Macular degeneration and retinal detachment can be diagnosed with a dilated eye exam, where a doctor gives you eye drops to widen your pupil and then examines your retina. If they need more information, you may need to receive imaging tests like an ultrasound or optical coherence tomography (a type of imaging scan).

Here’s a look at the treatment options for these two conditions.

Macular degeneration treatment

Early stage macular degeneration doesn’t require specific treatment but is monitored with regular eye exams. If you have intermediate stage disease, your doctor may recommend AREDS 2 supplements.

If you have late stage wet macular degeneration, your doctor may recommend:

There’s no known effective treatment for late dry macular degeneration

Retinal detachment treatment

Freeze treatment (cryopexy) or laser surgery may be able to repair tiny holes or tears in your retina. Freeze treatment involves freezing your retina with extreme cold.

Surgery may be required if a large part of your retina is pulled away from your eye. Surgery is successful in about 90% of people. It usually takes about 2–6 weeks to recover after surgery.

You may be able to reduce your chances of developing macular degeneration by:

  • quitting smoking if you smoke (this can be difficult, but a doctor can build a cessation plan that works for you)
  • exercising regularly
  • maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels
  • eating healthy foods like leafy green vegetables and fatty fish

You can reduce your risk of retinal detachment by protecting your eyes by wearing protective eye gear when doing activities with a high risk of eye injury, such as contact sports or construction.

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about retinal detachment.

Is retinal detachment painful?

Retinal detachment is painless. The first noticeable symptoms may be floaters or flashes in your eyes.

How long before retinal detachment causes blindness?

Retinal detachment may cause loss of sight within hours or days. It’s important to get medical attention right away.

What should you avoid with retinal detachment?

If you recently had a detached retina, it’s best to avoid activities where you move your head quickly, such as lifting heavy objects or cleaning.

Retinal detachment and macular degeneration are two conditions that cause vision loss.

Macular degeneration is caused by age-related changes to your eye. It tends to develop slowly and doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages.

Retinal detachment generally causes vision loss within hours to days. It requires immediate medical attention.