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Diabetic eye disease: Types and treatments

Diabetes increases your risk for eye disease, but finding and treating problems early can help you keep your vision intact.

Diabetes can damage many parts of the body, including the eyes.

Diabetes develops when the body doesn't use sugar properly. When too much sugar lingers in the blood for too long, diabetic eye disease may set in. This group of eye problems, which can cause severe vision loss or even blindness, includes:

Diabetic retinopathy—This is damage to blood vessels in the retina, the nerve layer at the back of the eye that senses light and helps send images to the brain. In some people with diabetic retinopathy, the damaged blood vessels may swell and leak fluid. In other people, abnormal new blood vessels may grow on the surface of the retina. These changes can lead to vision loss or blindness, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI).

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss for people with diabetes and the leading cause of blindness in working-age American adults, according to the NEI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Treatment options for retinopathy include:

  • Laser therapy to seal or shrink damaged blood vessels. Along with proper follow-up care, this treatment can slow loss of sight and reduce the risk of blindness from diabetic retinopathy, according to the NEI.
  • Surgery, called vitrectomy, to remove scar tissue and cloudy fluid from inside of the eye and replace it with a clear solution. The earlier in the disease process the surgery is done, the more likely it will be successful, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Eyeglasses may also be needed to aid vision.

Cataracts—This is a clouding of the eye's usually clear lens. A cataract blocks light and makes everything appear cloudy.

For mild cataracts, wearing sunglasses more often and using glare-control lenses in eyeglasses may help.

For cataracts that greatly interfere with vision, doctors may surgically remove the cloudy lens of the eye and replace it with an artificial one.

Glaucoma—This is a gradual buildup of fluid pressure inside the eye. Over time, the pressure damages the eye's main nerve, called the optic nerve. At first, the pressure may make it harder to see things on the edges of your vision. If glaucoma goes untreated, it can even lead to blindness.

Treatments for glaucoma seek to reduce pressure in the eye. They include eyedrops, laser therapy or surgery to create a new channel for fluid to drain out of the eye.

Prevention is best

To keep your vision at its best, see your doctor for regular checkups, keep your blood sugar under control and report any vision changes to your doctor right away. Finding and treating eye problems early may save your vision.

reviewed 11/8/2019

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