In love, the eyes may be the window to the soul; but in the medical world, they’re a gateway to your health.
“The eyes are a vital organ which can affect activities of daily living and quality of life,” says Ravi D. Goel, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Wills Eye Surgical Network in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Think about it: A medical disease—or unexpected trauma—impacting your peepers can impact how well you drive, walk, work…and do just about anything.
Of course, some diseases like macular degeneration are serious; other conditions, like conjunctivitis are simply annoying. So what do you need to know about the issues that could be facing your eyes? Allow experts from the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) to explain. (Heal your whole body with Rodale’s 12-day power plan for better health.)
Glaucoma is an eye disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve, which sends visual information to your brain. It’s also the second leading cause of blindnessin the world, according to the World Health Organization. More than three million people in the U.S. have glaucoma—but only half of them know it, says Andrew G. Iwach, M.D., a glaucoma specialist at the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco.
Spot it: The most common form of glaucoma (called open-angle glaucoma) has been nicknamed the ‘Sneak Thief of Sight,’ says Iwach. That’s because, at the start, it often has no symptoms. What’s happening inside your eye, though? Pressure increases and blind spots develop in your side view. “These points can go undetected until the optic nerve has had serious damage, or until it is detected by an ophthalmologist through a complete eye exam,” says Iwach.
Treat it: What your doc will decide to do will depend on the severity of the disease. “Taken daily, medicated eye drops are the most common way to treat glaucoma,” says Iwach. Surgery is also an option. But it’s important to touch base with your doctor to find out which treatment is best for you.
Prevent it: Quick: When was the last time you saw an eye doctor? Well, the AAO recommends everyone has an eye exam starting at age 40—even if your vision is A-OK. If you have a family history of eye disease, you may be at an increased risk for glaucoma, though, and may need to see an ophthalmologist before then, says Iwach. He adds that people of African, Latino, and Asian heritage are at increased risk for glaucoma, too.
Better known as ‘pink eye’—when the clear tissue over the white part of your eye gets inflamed—conjunctivitis is super common, says Natasha L. Herz, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Kensington Eye Center in Rockville, Maryland. It affects about three million people every year, according to the National Eye Institute.
Spot it: As its nickname suggests, conjunctivitis makes your eyes look pink, says Herz. Your eyes might also be itchy, teary, or have some discharge. Your eyelids might get matted shut (lovely), too, and you could experience slightly blurred vision, she says. But while pink eye can be very uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be painful or make you sensitive to light, she says.
Treat it: Different types of pink eye (ugh, there are different types?!) require different treatments, says Herz. For example, seasonal conjunctivitis (often caused by pollen) can be treated by hand- and face-washing, cold compresses, antihistamines, or steroid eye drops (prescribed by your ophthalmologist), says Herz.
Unfortunately, though, medications don’t help viral conjunctivitis, says Herz. Since this can be uber-contagious, the main advice here is to wash your handsand not share towels or pillowcases, says Herz. This kind of conjunctivitis usually takes seven to 10 days to heal—and it doesn’t respond to antibiotic drops.
Bacterial conjunctivitis? That responds to antibiotic eye drops in one to two days, says Herz. Good hand-washing hygiene is still important, but after 24 hours of antibiotic drops you’re usually good to go back to work, she notes. (BTW: The only way to know which kind you have is by visiting your doc.) According to the National Health Service, leaving infectious conjunctivitis untreated can cause infections to pop up elsewhere on your body. What’s more, not seeking treatment could also (in rare cases) lead to vision loss.
Prevent it: With pink eye, prevention usually refers to infectious conjunctivitis (a la viral or bacterial). The key: Wash. Your. Hands! Plus, don’t share with those who have an infection, says Herz.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of blindness in adults in the U.S. today, says Raj K. Maturi, M.D., a vitreo-retinal specialist at the Midwest Eye Institute in Indianapolis. And according to the National Eye Institute, by 2050, the estimated number of people with AMD is expected to more than double from 2.07 million to 5.44 million. What AMD is: More or less, it’s when your eye’s macula—a tiny area in your retina that helps you see fine details clearly—starts to break down.
Spot it: AMD may not have many symptoms right off the bat, but never ignore central visual distortion (a blind spot in the center of your vision), says Maturi. Also: Any changes in vision should be reported to your doc.
Treat it: If you think you have AMD, see an ophthalmologist ASAP to determine the best game plan for you. There are two forms of AMD—dry (the more common form, which happens when deposits called drusen form under the macula, thining and drying it out) and wet (about 10 percent of cases). As of now, the AAO says there’s no one set treatment for the dry form. The wet form (which happens when abnormal blood vessels grow under the macula, sometimes causing leaking or bleeding) can be treated (but not cured) a few different ways: anti-VEGF treatment, an eye injection that targets a chemical that leads to abnormal blood vessels; thermal laser treatment, when a high-energy laser destroys abnormal blood vessels; or photodynamic therapy, a combo of a light-activated medication and a low-powered laser. Some researchalso suggests supplementation with vitamins and minerals can help fend off disease progression—but it’s important to touch base with your doctor before starting on a regimen.
Prevent it: There’s no way to prevent AMD, but you can help slow its progression, says Maturi. How? Having good blood pressure control; eating eye-healthy foods (think: citrus fruits, vegetable oils, nuts, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, and cold water fish); keeping your body fat levels in check; skipping the cigarettes; and keeping on top of your regular eye exams are all good strategies.
Retinal detachment is when the retina, that light-sensitive tissue that sends visual messages to your brain, gets pulled away from its position. Don’t worry, it’s rare: “Some studies say that about 1 percent of the population will develop a retinal detachment at some point in their lives,” says Maturi. Untreated, though, this almost always leads to blindness, he adds.
Spot it: A sudden onset of flashes of light or a crop of new floaters suddenly appearing in your visual field are the most common symptoms. “In some cases, a patient may see an opaque dark shadow begin on the side of vision and slowly grow,” says Maturi.
Treat it: This is an urgent condition, says Maturi. If you notice symptoms, you need to see your nearest ophthalmologist, stat. How your doc will treat you will vary. “If the detachment is small, it can be treated with laser or freezing treatments in the office,” he says. Other times, a small gas bubble (called a pneumatic retinopexy) can be injected into the eye. If the detachment is severe, surgery might be required, he says.
Prevent it: Near-sighted? That’s the main risk factor for retinal detachment, says Maturi. You don’t need to panic—just keep up with your eye doc appointments. “Rubbing your eyes hard can also make an eye more susceptible to developing a detachment,” he says.
Cataracts pop up when the natural lens in your eye becomes cloudy, says Goel. “Almost all patients who live long enough will experience cataracts, which can also occur sooner in patients who smoke, have significant sun exposure, or suffer trauma,” he says. Prevent Blindness estimates about 24.5 million adults over 40 have cataracts; more than 50 percent of people over 80 have it.
Spot it: Symptoms are often gradual. Keep an eye out for blurred vision, glare, or halos, says Goel. You may also experience a loss of contrast sensitivity or even double vision in one eye, he adds.
Treat it: Cataracts are treated through cataract surgery—one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures in the U.S., says Goel. The technology has come a long way, too. “Cataract surgeons once made 10 to 11 millimeter incisions in the cornea and surrounding tissue to perform surgery, but modern day surgery can be achieved with small incisions which are commonly less than 3 millimeters,” he says. If you don’t have surgery to remove your cataracts, your vision may decline over time, according to All About Vision, and surgery will be more difficult to do the worse the cataracts become.