Diabetes Complications: Diabetes and Eye Problems

Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness. If you have diabetic eye problems, here's what you need to know.

High blood sugar increases the risk of diabetes eye problems. The three major eye problems that people with diabetes may develop are cataracts, glaucoma, and retinopathy.

Contents:

What are diabetes problems?

Too much glucose in the blood for a long time can cause diabetes problems. This high blood glucose, also called blood sugar, can damage many parts of the body, such as the heart, blood vessels, eyes, and kidneys. Heart and blood vessel disease can lead to heart attacks and strokes. You can do a lot to prevent or slow down diabetes problems.

This booklet is about eye problems caused by diabetes. You will learn the things you can do each day and during each year to stay healthy and prevent diabetes problems.

Image of High Blood Glucose Eye Problems
High blood glucose can cause eye problems.

What should I do each day to stay healthy with diabetes?

 

Fruit Bowl Follow the healthy eating plan that you and your doctor or dietitian have worked out.

Walker image Be active a total of 30 minutes most days. Ask your doctor what activities are best for you.

Bottle of medication Take your medicines as directed.

Blood glucose meeter Check your blood glucose every day. Each time you check your blood glucose, write the number in your record book.

Checking your feet Check your feet every day for cuts, blisters, sores, swelling, redness, or sore toenails.

Toothbrush and dental floss Brush and floss your teeth every day.

Blood pressure control Control your blood pressure and cholesterol.

No smoking sign Don't smoke.


 



What can I do to prevent diabetes eye problems?

You can do a lot to prevent diabetes eye problems.

  • Keep your blood glucose and blood pressure as close to normal as you can.
  • Have an eye care professional examine your eyes once a year. Have this exam even if your vision is OK. The eye care professional will use drops to make the black part of your eyes—pupils—bigger. This process is called dilating your pupil, which allows the eye care professional to see the back of your eye. Finding eye problems early and getting treatment right away will help prevent more serious problems later on.

Dilated eye.  Dilated eye

Undilated eye.  Undilated eye

    • Ask your eye care professional to check for signs of cataracts and glaucoma. See What other eye problems can happen to people with diabetes? to learn more about cataracts and glaucoma.
    • If you are planning to get pregnant soon, ask your doctor if you should have an eye exam.
    • If you are pregnant and have diabetes, see an eye care professional during your first 3 months of pregnancy.
    • Don't smoke.

How can diabetes hurt my eyes?

High blood glucose and high blood pressure from diabetes can hurt four parts of your eye:

  • Retina. The retina is the lining at the back of the eye. The retina's job is to sense light coming into the eye.
  • Vitreous. The vitreous is a jelly-like fluid that fills the back of the eye.
  • Lens. The lens is at the front of the eye. The lens focuses light on the retina.
  • Optic nerve. The optic nerve is the eye's main nerve to the brain.

Side view of the eye A side view of the eye.

How can diabetes hurt the retinas of my eyes?

Retina damage happens slowly. Your retinas have tiny blood vessels that are easy to damage. Having high blood glucose and high blood pressure for a long time can damage these tiny blood vessels.

First, these tiny blood vessels swell and weaken. Some blood vessels then become clogged and do not let enough blood through. At first, you might not have any loss of sight from these changes. Have a dilated eye exam once a year even if your sight seems fine.

One of your eyes may be damaged more than the other. Or both eyes may have the same amount of damage.

Diabetic retinopathy is the medical term for the most common diabetes eye problem.


 


What happens as diabetes retina problems get worse?

As diabetes retina problems get worse, new blood vessels grow. These new blood vessels are weak. They break easily and leak blood into the vitreous of your eye. The leaking blood keeps light from reaching the retina.

You may see floating spots or almost total darkness. Sometimes the blood will clear out by itself. But you might need surgery to remove it.

Over the years, the swollen and weak blood vessels can form scar tissue and pull the retina away from the back of the eye. If the retina becomes detached, you may see floating spots or flashing lights.

You may feel as if a curtain has been pulled over part of what you are looking at. A detached retina can cause loss of sight or blindness if you don't take care of it right away.


Call your eye care professional right away if you are having any vision problems or if you have had a sudden change in your vision.

Drawing of a cross section of an eye showing no diabetes damage with the retina, blood vessels on the retina, the optic nerve, the vitreous, and the lens labeled. Drawing of a cross section of an eye showing some diabetes damage with the retina, blood vessels on the retina, the optic nerve, the vitreous, and the lens labeled. Drawing of a cross section of an eye showing a lot of diabetes damage with the retina, blood vessels on the retina, the optic nerve, new blood vessels, the vitreous, and the lens labeled.

Retina with damage and retina with diabetes damage

What can I do about diabetes retina problems?

Keep your blood glucose and blood pressure as close to normal as you can.

Your eye care professional may suggest laser treatment, which is when a light beam is aimed into the retina of the damaged eye. The beam closes off leaking blood vessels. It may stop blood and fluid from leaking into the vitreous. Laser treatment may slow the loss of sight.


 


If a lot of blood has leaked into your vitreous and your sight is poor, your eye care professional might suggest you have surgery called a vitrectomy. A vitrectomy removes blood and fluid from the vitreous of your eye. Then clean fluid is put back into the eye. The surgery can make your eyesight better.

How do I know if I have retina damage from diabetes?

You may not have any signs of diabetes retina damage, or you may have one or more signs:

  • blurry or double vision
  • rings, flashing lights, or blank spots
  • dark or floating spots
  • pain or pressure in one or both of your eyes
  • trouble seeing things out of the corners of your eyes

Drawing of an eye chart with rows of letters in decreasing sizes used for an eye exam. Normal vision


Eye chart blurred Blurry vision

If you have retina damage from diabetes, you may have blurry or double vision.


What other eye problems can happen to people with diabetes?

You can get two other eye problems—cataracts and glaucoma. People without diabetes can get these eye problems, too. But people with diabetes get these problems more often and at a younger age.

  • A cataract is a cloud over the lens of your eye, which is usually clear. The lens focuses light onto the retina. A cataract makes everything you look at seem cloudy. You need surgery to remove the cataract. During surgery your lens is taken out and a plastic lens, like a contact lens, is put in. The plastic lens stays in your eye all the time. Cataract surgery helps you see clearly again.
  • Glaucoma starts from pressure building up in the eye. Over time, this pressure damages your eye's main nerve—the optic nerve. The damage first causes you to lose sight from the sides of your eyes. Treating glaucoma is usually simple. Your eye care professional will give you special drops to use every day to lower the pressure in your eyes. Or your eye care professional may want you to have laser surgery.

Pronunciation Guide

cataracts (KAT-uh-rakts)

dilating (DY-layt-eeng)

glaucoma (glaw-KOH-muh)

lens (lenz)

optic nerve (AHP-tik) (nerv)

retina (RET-ih-nuh)

retinopathy (RET-ih-NOP-uh-thee)

vitrectomy (vih-TREK-tuh-mee)

vitreous (VIT-ree-uhss)

For More Information


 


Eye Care Professionals (ophthalmologists, optometrists)

To find an eye care professional near you, ask your doctor for a recommendation, contact a nearby hospital or medical school, or call a state or county association of ophthalmologists or optometrists.

See the American Academy of Ophthalmology website at www.aao.org and use the "Find an Eye M.D." service.

See the American Optometric Association website at www.aoa.org and click on "Find an Optometrist" or call 1-800-365-2219.

Diabetes Teachers (nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, and other health professionals)

To find a diabetes teacher near you, call the American Association of Diabetes Educators toll-free at 1-800-TEAMUP4 (832-6874), or look on the Internet at www.diabeteseducator.org and click on "Find a Diabetes Educator."

Dietitians

To find a dietitian near you, contact the American Dietetic Association at www.eatright.org and click on "Find a Nutrition Professional."

Government

The National Eye Institute (NEI) is part of the National Institutes of Health. To learn more about eye problems, write or call the NEI, 2020 Vision Place, Bethesda, MD 20892-3655, 301-496-5248; or see www.nei.nih.gov on the Internet.

Source: NIH Publication No. 09-4279, November 2008

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Last Updated: 11 July 2017

Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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