Glaucoma and cataracts are both eye disorders that can cause vision loss and affect the health of your eye. Although they have some similar symptoms and share some risk factors, they have different causes, treatments, and outcomes.
Let’s take a closer look at these two eye disorders, as well as the risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options for both.
Glaucoma is caused by too much fluid pressure inside your eye.
Your eyes are filled with a fluid called the aqueous humor. Every day, your body refreshes that fluid. Older fluid leaves your eye through a meshwork drainage field and a small opening. New fluid replaces the old fluid, maintaining a steady pressure gradient inside the eyeball.
If something blocks either of the drainage mechanisms, pressure can build up inside your eye. If the fluid pressure isn’t relieved, fibers in the optic nerve can be permanently damaged, causing a loss of vision.
The vast majority of glaucoma cases are open-angle. The pressure builds slowly and loss of vision is gradual.
Glaucoma may not present any symptoms at first, especially if it builds slowly. The first symptom you may notice is some loss of your peripheral vision. This means you may not see things well around the outside of your field of vision.
Closed-angle glaucoma is more likely to present sudden symptoms, including intense eye pain. Your eye may feel firm to the touch, and it may appear red. You may also feel nauseated.
With closed-angle glaucoma, your vision may be blurry, and you may see halos of light glowing around everything. It’s important to get medical care as soon as possible if you have symptoms of closed-angle glaucoma.
- In general, people over the age of 60 are at a higher risk for glaucoma.
- People with African American or Latino heritage are more likely to have open-angle glaucoma.
- Women and people of Southeast Asian or Alaska Native heritage are at increased risk for closed-angle glaucoma.
- People who have an immediate family member with glaucoma are more likely to develop the condition.
Glaucoma can be diagnosed during a routine eye exam. To diagnose glaucoma, your doctor will likely give you eye drops that dilate (open) your pupil. Your doctor will also test the pressure in your eye. This is a painless procedure.
If necessary, your eye doctor may scan your eye to check for indicators of glaucoma.
The first treatment option for glaucoma is often medicated eye drops that may help decrease the pressure in your eye. If eye drops aren’t the best treatment for you or if they don’t work effectively, your ophthalmologist may perform laser surgery to help your eye fluid to drain properly.
In some cases, surgery or microsurgical techniques may be necessary to create tiny openings that allow drainage. Or, small tubes or stents may be inserted into your eye to make it possible for fluid to flow out. You’ll be awake but numbed and sedated to keep you calm during the procedure.
Inside your eye, a clear lens allows light to enter, enabling images to be projected onto your retina at the back of your eye.
Over time, the proteins inside your eye break down. They can stick together, forming whitish, yellow, or brown clumps that cloud, block, or distort your vision. These cloud-like clumps are called cataracts.
Cataracts are the most common cause of vision loss in the world. According to the National Eye Institute, over half the people in the United States over 80 years old either currently have cataracts or have had them removed surgically in the past.
Cataracts take some time to develop. You might not notice any symptoms when they first form, but eventually you’ll probably experience some of these symptoms:
- blurred vision
- double vision
- poor night vision
- extra sensitivity to light
- pale or faded colors
- frequent changes to your eyewear prescription
The types of symptoms you have can depend on the location of the cataract on your lens.
Some people are born with cataracts because of an infection in the uterus, and some people develop cataracts when they’re children, although this is rare. Cataracts can also form after your eye has been injured or as a result of eye surgery.
But the most common cause of cataracts is the natural changes in your eyes as you get older. At around 40 years of age, the number of people with cataracts is around 2.5 percent, but by the age of 75, that figure jumps to about 49 percent.
Some other factors can also increase your risk of developing cataracts, including:
- high blood pressure
- long-term steroid use
- excessive alcohol use
- excessive sun exposure
Cataracts can be detected with a simple dilation test during a routine eye exam. Your doctor will place eye drops into your eyes to temporarily widen (dilate) your pupil. This makes it easier for your doctor to see any cataracts on your lens.
If your cataracts are small, you may be able to change your prescription to deal with changes to your vision. If your cataracts are advanced, you may need surgery. Cataract surgery is a common procedure that usually delivers good results.
There are steps you can take to help reduce your risk for getting cataracts. For instance, you can:
- protect your eyes from the sun by wearing sunglasses
- stop smoking if you’re currently a smoker
- eat foods that contain antioxidants that your eyes need
- reduce alcohol consumption
- take care of your overall health by getting regular eye exams and following your treatment plan if you have a condition such as diabetes
The primary difference between these two eye conditions is that they have different causes.
- Glaucoma is caused by a buildup of fluid inside your eye.
- Cataracts are caused by an accumulation of broken-down proteins in your eye.
The outcome of these two conditions also differ. Cataract surgery can often restore good vision. But if you lose some of your eyesight from glaucoma, your vision loss is likely permanent.
You can have glaucoma and cataracts at the same time. In fact, sometimes one can lead to the other.
Sometimes a cataract becomes so large that it blocks your eye’s natural drainage system. Doctors may be able to remove the cataract through surgery, reopening the blocked drain and reducing pressure on the optic nerve.
It’s also very common for cataracts to form after glaucoma surgery. Some
Both conditions are serious. Early detection is the key to preserving your vision and maintaining the health of your eyes.
Cataract surgery is a common procedure, and it usually results in a successful outcome for most people. Because your vision can often be restored after surgery, cataracts usually don’t lead to permanent vision loss.
Glaucoma treatments focus on reducing the fluid buildup in your eye. So far, researchers haven’t found a way to regenerate optic nerve fibers that may have been damaged by glaucoma. If you lose some of your vision because of glaucoma, it’s likely to be permanent.
It’s a good idea to see an eye doctor every year for regular exams and screenings for glaucoma and cataracts.
See your healthcare provider right away if you notice changes in your vision. Don’t feel that you have to wait until your next checkup.
Sudden-onset glaucoma is a serious health problem. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately:
- severe eye pain
- nausea or vomiting
- eye redness
- blurry vision
Glaucoma and cataracts can both lead to vision loss if they’re not diagnosed and treated early. Both conditions can cause blurry vision as well as other symptoms.
Glaucoma is the result of the buildup of fluid inside your eye. When eye fluid can’t drain properly, it puts pressure on the optic nerve. This can lead to permanent vision loss. Treatment is focused on reducing the fluid pressure in your eye.
Cataracts are caused by an accumulation of protein in the lens of your eye. This can cause cloudy vision, double vision, and poor night vision. As you age, you’re increasingly likely to develop cataracts. Fortunately, cataract surgery can help restore vision for most people.
It’s important to have regular eye exams to ensure that glaucoma or cataracts are detected early enough to keep your eyes healthy and your vision clear, especially as you get older.