Eye Health, Explained
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. We don't know if that's true, but what we do know is that having perfectly healthy eyes—excellent vision and clear eyes, free of pain or other symptoms—are crucial to your health and well-being. The good news is that it's easy to learn more about eye problems, symptoms, and the treatments that will keep you in tip-top shape.
About 21 million Americans have some type of vision problem, according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While many of these problems are relatively benign, such as mild nearsightedness, other eye conditions like glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration can trigger vision loss and even blindness.
Although many people start developing eye diseases in middle age, their symptoms may not appear until later on, when the condition is more advanced and harder to treat. In fact, some people may not realize they have a vision problem at all until their eye doctor detects it during a routine screening or a comprehensive dilated eye exam, which checks your retina, optic nerve, eye pressure, and more.
The risk for developing an eye condition increases with age. But other factors can also up your odds of experiencing vision problems in the future. For example, African Americans and people with a family history of glaucoma may have a higher risk of developing the disease. And people who have diabetes can develop a condition called diabetic retinopathy, which can damage their retinas. By detecting eye diseases such as these and treating them as soon as possible, experts estimate that nearly half of all vision loss and blindness could be prevented.
Symptoms of eye disease
In some cases, the symptoms of certain eye diseases can overlap with others. For example, watery eyes could be a sign of pink eye (conjunctivitis), allergies, or a sty; likewise, light sensitivity could indicate a cataract, migraine, or chalazion (a bump on the eyelid). Resting your eyes might help ease symptoms, but in general, if you’re experiencing severe or lasting pain, you should call a doctor right away.
Below, some of the most common symptoms of eye diseases:
Treatment for eye disease
Eye doctors will usually treat refractive errors like nearsightedness and farsightedness with glasses or contacts. But more serious eye diseases may be treated with a combination of medications or surgery. In many cases, the best way to protect your vision is to have regular screenings, including comprehensive dilated eye exams. By detecting eye conditions in their early stages, it’s possible to prevent vision loss from becoming worse with age.
Here, a few common eye disease treatments:
- Refractive surgery, a procedure that can help correct refractive errors, such as nearsightedness or astigmatism (LASIK is a type of refractive surgery).
- Corneal transplantation to replace either part or all of a damaged cornea.
- Oral steroids, medications that can treat inflammatory eye conditions such as uveitis, a serious, potentially vision-damaging inflammation of the uvea, the middle layer of the eye.
Most common eye issues and problems
The most common eye issues in the United States are classified as refractive errors, which include myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), astigmatisms (blurry vision), and presbyopia (an inability to focus on objects up close). While many of these vision problems can be corrected with the help of eyeglasses, contacts, or surgery, millions of Americans have more serious eye conditions that can eventually lead to vision loss or blindness. This includes diseases like age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.
Here are some eye issues you can develop:
• Refractive errors
• Optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve
• Retinal diseases, such as a retinal tear or detachment
• Macular degeneration
• Diabetic eye problems, such as diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema
Glaucoma occurs when fluid pressure increases in the eye, damaging the optic nerve. People with glaucoma can lose their vision and eventually become blind, and the disease is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States. Early treatment—through eye drops or surgery—may help slow the disease’s progression and prevent vision loss. People can develop glaucoma at any age, but it usually affects older adults.
Cataracts are a clouding of the eye’s lens, leading to blurry vision and eventual vision loss. They often develop as people age, when the proteins in the eye begin to clump together and cause cloudiness, making it difficult to see properly. More than half of Americans have had cataracts by their 80th birthday, and those who smoke, are obese, have high blood pressure, take certain medications, or have diabetes have a greater risk of developing them.
Other symptoms can include double vision, difficulty seeing at night, a “halo” that appears around lights, and seeing colors become faded or yellowed. An optometrist or ophthalmologist can diagnose cataracts with a comprehensive eye exam. Prescription eyeglasses can help some people with cataracts, but others may have to undergo surgery to remove them.
Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
Thanks to its hallmark symptom, conjunctivitis is most commonly known by its nickname, pink eye. Although it can be hard to pinpoint the cause of conjunctivitis, this eye condition can be triggered by viruses, bacteria, allergens, chemicals, and even a loose eyelash or dirty contact lens.
Besides the classic pink or red color that develops in the eye, conjunctivitis can also cause a swelling of the eyelids, watery eyes, itching, burning, crusting, or discharge. Pink eye caused by a virus or bacteria can also be contagious. In some cases, the eye infection will clear up on its own (using a cool compress and artificial tears can help ease irritation), but if you’re experiencing pain, worsening symptoms, a sensitivity to light, and blurry vision, you should see a doctor.
An estimated 10 million people in the United States are affected by macular degeneration, an eye disease that damages the central vision. Macular degeneration usually refers to age-related macular degeneration (AMD). There are two subgroups of AMD: wet AMD, which occurs when blood vessels grow under the retina; and dry AMD, which affects about 80% of all macular degeneration cases and occurs when the retina thins over time.
Sties are red, pimple-like bumps caused by a blockage in one of the eyelid’s oil glands. They usually appear on the edge of a person’s eyelid. The most common symptoms include a sensitivity to light, a sensation of grittiness, and watery eyes. To treat the eye condition at home, try applying a warm washcloth to the bump. While many sties heal on their own, your doctor may recommend an antibiotic for a lingering sty, or try draining it in the office.
When the blood vessels in the eye become swollen due to dryness, allergies, or infections like conjunctivitis, the eyes can appear red and bloodshot. Oftentimes, red eyes don’t signal an emergency, but on some occasions—for example, if it’s accompanied by eye pain or vision changes—you should call your doctor.
Other eye conditions:
• Myopia: Also known as nearsightedness, myopia is one of the most common vision problems in the United States. Along with hyperopia (farsightedness), this eye condition can be treated with eyeglasses, contacts, and surgery such as LASIK.
• Chalazion: Sometimes mistaken for a sty, a chalazion is a red, swollen bump that can spring up on the eyelid when the eyelid’s oil glands become clogged.
• Color blindness: Although less common in women, as many as 8% of men have color blindness, difficulty distinguishing between shades of similar colors.
• Eye floaters: Often appearing as squiggly spots in front of your field of vision, eye floaters are caused by changes in the eye’s vitreous humor, a jelly-like substance. Sounds scary, but these floaters are usually harmless. An exception: If they are accompanied by flashes of light, you may be experiencing posterior vitreous detachment, which could lead to a retinal tear or detachment. In that case, seek medical attention immediately.
• Dry eye: A difficulty making enough tears to keep the eye moist, dry eye can cause blurry vision, burning, or itchiness. Using artificial tears or a prescription medication can help alleviate the discomfort.
• Diabetic retinopathy: An eye disease that affects people with diabetes, diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels in a person’s retina, which can eventually lead to vision loss.
• Eye strain: Wearing the wrong prescription glasses or contact lenses can cause your eyes to feel tired or uncomfortable. Another culprit: staring at electronic screens such as tablets, e-readers, and computers.
• Acanthamoeba keratitis: This rare, drug-resistant infection of the cornea is caused by the Acanthamoeba organism, a microscopic amoeba found in lakes, oceans, and soil. Symptoms can include eye pain, redness, blurry vision, and sensitivity to light. The infection can result in permanent vision loss and blindness.