Good eyesight is precious.
When you’re aware of the most common eye conditions and their symptoms, you are better prepared to notice changes and get help early if something comes up.
And don’t forget to visit your eye doctor every year for check-ups, even if nothing seems amiss. Prevention is easier than restoring lost vision.
Here are five of the most common eye diseases in the U.S.
Cataracts are the number-one cause of vision loss. Almost half of blindness worldwide is thought to be caused by cataracts. Fortunately, cataracts are very treatable with surgery. Patients’ lost vision is restored fully and almost immediately. The American Optometric Association calls cataract surgery one of the “safest and most effective surgeries performed in the United States today.” There are even records of cataract surgery in the ancient world.
Cataracts are primarily related to the aging process, although there are other causes in younger people. If you are over age 40, there is a 1-in-6 chance that you’ll develop cataracts. By the time you reach age 80, the chances are 50-50. The clouding of the lens over time causes foggy, blurred vision because not enough light is getting through the normally clear lens. At first, this issue can be treated with stronger lighting and glasses, but surgery is usually the best option as cataracts get worse.
Another age-related vision issue is presbyopia. This condition is often confused with farsightedness. It is usually first noticeable sometime after age 40 when close tasks, such as reading, become more difficult. It’s more easily correctable than many eye conditions, making presbyopia more annoying than a serious problem related to aging.
If you notice yourself holding menus, books, photos, or your smartphone farther away than usual in order to see them more clearly, it is probably time for a visit to your optometrist. While some people simply rely on a pair of “readers” with various magnification powers, others will need a change to their prescription. Both eyeglasses and contact lenses can be used to correct the refractive error of presbyopia. Surgery is also an option.
While near- and farsightedness are caused by irregularities in the shape of the cornea or lens, presbyopia is caused by the hardening of the lens. When the lens can’t change shape as easily, it loses its ability to focus as accurately as it used to. Hardening of the lens is simply a part of the aging process and can’t be reversed.
The medical name for pink eye is conjunctivitis.
It is one of the most common eye diseases, but also one of the least serious. Most cases resolve on their own within a week. Bacteria, viruses, allergens, or other irritants can cause the conjunctiva to become inflamed.
The first signs are usually swelling, sensitivity, itching, and pain. Watery eyes and redness occur as the many small blood vessels in the conjunctiva produce discharge in the thin membrane that covers the eyeball (conjunctiva). The lacrimal gland that produces tears is also affected, leading to increased fluid discharge. Overnight, the discharge can build up to a point that the eyelids are stuck shut by a yellow-whitish mucus hardened into a crust.
Usually, antibiotics are all that is needed to clear up the infection.
The name “glaucoma” refers not just to a single condition, but to a group of similar eye diseases that damage the delicate optic nerve. Such damage is irreversible, so prevention and close monitoring are especially important. It can be difficult to detect in its early stages, often showing no signs until damage to the optic nerve has already begun. Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States.
Known to medicine for thousands of years, it is called the “silent thief of sight” because it usually progresses extremely gradually. For this reason, it is critical to receive full eye exams yearly by a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist. Part of their exam will be checking peripheral vision, eye pressure, and other early signs of glaucoma that can be too subtle to detect otherwise. Gradual changes often lead to the following symptoms:
- Peripheral vision loss or blurriness
- Patchy vision or blind spots
- Blurriness not from refractive errors
- Severe and sudden eye pain and headaches
- Halos around light
- Photophobia (sensitivity to light)
- Cloudy appearance of the eyes
- Dilated pupils
- Red eyes
While glaucoma is in most cases gradual, it can come on in sudden attacks, as well. Seek emergency room care immediately for this type of rapid onset. Extremely high pressure in the eye causes bursts of incredible eye pain or an unusually terrible headache that seems to come out of nowhere. Sometimes the pain causes nausea and vomiting as ocular pressure builds. This type of glaucoma comes on suddenly and does damage to the optic nerve in sudden and short episodes.
5. Macular Degeneration
There are several types of macular degeneration. The most common is age-related. More than 10 million Americans suffer from macular degeneration, and most of those are over age 60.
Of cases of age-related macular degeneration, by far the most common is the dry type. The dry types can progress into the wet type if left untreated.
The hallmark of macular degeneration that sets it apart from other common causes of vision loss is that people experience blurriness in the center of their vision, instead of at the edges or overall. While edges remain in focus, objects in the central field may be blurry, unusually bright or dark, appear distorted, or even become lost in a blank spot. This happens because weakened blood vessels at the back of the eye leak fluid that distorts vision. Over time, the leakage damages sensitive photoreceptors on the retina.
Seek out your optometrist or ophthalmologist at the very first sign of blurriness in the central field of vision. By the time these changes appear, the disease has already been progressing for some time and requires immediate treatment. While it is impossible to reverse the damage, treatment can slow the progression of vision loss.