Over 18 million people in the United States have diabetes, a lifelong illness that can lead to a range of different health problems. Many people also have pre-diabetes or may be unaware that they have diabetes. All types of diabetes have the potential to greatly affect the eyes. If not properly managed, diabetes can lead to diabetic eye disease, which can permanently affect vision, even causing blindness.

Diabetic eye disease is a blanket term that covers the four major eye complications associated with diabetes: diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema, cataracts, and glaucoma. The effects of diabetic eye disease cannot be fixed with prescription eyeglasses and require various medical procedures to treat.

Diabetic retinopathy

Your retina is responsible for taking in light and enabling you to see. Small blood vessels within your retina can be damaged by consistently high blood sugar levels. The damaged blood vessels can leak or bleed, which distorts vision. If left untreated, new blood vessels may appear in the retina, scarring it and damaging the cells of the retina.

Diabetic retinopathy may cause black spots to appear in a person’s field of vision. If not treated, diabetic retinopathy can lead to total blindness, but if it is caught early, vision can usually be restored. Diabetic retinopathy comes in two types: nonproliferative and proliferative.

  • Nonproliferative retinopathy

There are three stages of nonproliferative retinopathy: mild, moderate and severe. The condition begins with a swelling of the blood vessels, which progresses to blood vessel distortion and finally the secretion of growth factors in the retina.

  • Proliferative retinopathy

If diabetic retinopathy is not successfully slowed or stopped in the nonproliferative stage, it will advance to proliferative retinopathy. Proliferative retinopathy is marked by the growth of multiple new blood vessels which will hemorrhage, potentially causing retinal detachment and blindness. Proliferative retinopathy is significantly more difficult to treat than nonproliferative retinopathy.

Diabetic macular edema

Diabetic macular edema occurs when the macula fills with excess fluid, or edema. The macula is part of the retina and is responsible for central vision. DME causes vision to blur and may make it difficult to recognize faces or drive. The biggest risk factor of diabetic macular edema is diabetic retinopathy. Nearly half of all people with diabetic retinopathy will develop diabetic macular edema, and it remains the most common reason for vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy.

Symptoms of DME and diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic macular edema and diabetic retinopathy can both be detected early during a comprehensive eye exam. During a full eye exam, the doctor will dilate the eyes, which allows them to look for damage to the retina. They may also test eye pressure using a method called tonometry. If a diabetic eye disease is suspected, additional tests may be administered to confirm the extent of the disease.

Diabetic eye disease often begins with no noticeable symptoms. Many people with diabetic retinopathy do not know they have it until it is confirmed by a doctor. The first noticeable symptom associated with diabetic retinopathy is the onset of many floating black spots in the vision. Usually, the disease is moderately advanced by the time this symptom occurs.

Cataracts and glaucoma

Cataracts and glaucoma are not unique to diabetics, but those with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing these two conditions. Cataracts cloud the lens of the eye, while glaucoma refers to a group of eye diseases that affect the optic nerve.

Preventing diabetic eye disease 

The most vital part of preventing diabetic eye disease is managing diabetes overall. Those who get adequate exercise, eat right and take their diabetes medication as prescribed have a lower risk of diabetic eye disease than those who do not. The closer to normal you can keep your blood sugar levels, the less likely diabetic eye disease is to occur or progress.

General eye protection is even more important in those with diabetes. Practice good hygiene to lower your risk of eye infections and wear 100 percent UV-resistant sunglasses to avoid eye damage from ultraviolet rays.

Annual eye exams are essential to managing eye health and preventing vision loss from diabetic eye disease. In cases of type 2 diabetes, your eye doctor may be able to detect signs of diabetes before you begin to show symptoms. Even if your eyes are otherwise healthy, you should have an eye exam every one to two years. For people with diabetic eye disease, more frequent eye exams may be necessary. Talk with your optometrist to determine how frequently you should have a comprehensive eye exam.

An annual eye exam will also equip you with a current prescription if you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses. With this prescription, you’re free to shop around for the best deals on lenses. At 39DollarGlasses.com, you’ll find high-quality, custom lenses fit into the latest frames as well as multiple brands of contact lenses, and all for a fraction of the cost at your doctor’s office.