Most eye symptoms are indications of something relatively minor and treatable, such as allergies or dry eye syndrome. Others can be more serious. Macular degeneration and glaucoma, for instance, can start to harm your vision without you realising it until it’s too late. Even minor problems could grow severe if you don’t take care of them. To pre-empt the normal changes that come with ageing, ophthalmologist Dr Matthew Gorski recommends getting comprehensive annual eye exams starting at age 40 – or sooner if you have a family history of eye disease or if you have symptoms. Here are some vision symptoms that could indicate trouble.
Grittiness in your eye could be a sign you have dry eye. You may also have intermittent stabbing pain, glare around lights, sensitivity to light and watery eyes, says cornea and external disease specialist Dr Stephanie Marioneaux. “If you’re staring at computer screens all day, reading or driving, you’re setting yourself up for dry eye,” she says.
Approaching menopause can also contribute.
“There are many options that we can offer, but if you wait too long you may miss that window of opportunity to get some effective treatment.”
Spots that float past your vision from time to time are called floaters.
“Floaters are often a normal symptom of the ageing eye, but any sudden onset or change in floaters, flashing lights, a shadow or grey curtain in the peripheral or side vision could be a sign of a retinal tear or retinal detachment,” says Dr Gorski.
The retina is the layer of tissue at the back of your eye that receives light signals. It can pull away from the back of your eye, usually due to ageing or an eye injury. If you experience these symptoms, get emergency help right away. Without immediate treatment, you could lose your vision.
Halos and glare
“The more birthdays you have, the denser your lens will be,” says Dr Meredith R. Klifto, an assistant professor of ophthalmology.
That’s when your once-clear lens starts to turn cloudy, causing a cataract and making it difficult to see. Symptoms can include seeing halos around lights, glare, cloudiness, light sensitivity, blurry vision, having trouble driving at night, double vision in one eye and dim vision, says Dr Gorski.
A quick procedure can replace the cloudy lens with a new one, not only getting rid of the cataract but often restoring good vision as well.
Eye pain is a non-specific symptom, but is almost always a sign of disease, says Dr Gorski. The severity of the pain may be a clue as to its cause.
“Eye pain caused by corneal ulcers is usually moderate to severe and is often accompanied by light sensitivity, the feeling that something is in the eye, tearing, burning and decreased vision,” he says.
Contact lenses that aren’t properly cared for can cause corneal ulcers. If you have this type of pain, take out the lenses and see a doctor.
Other possible causes of pain include eye injuries or eye infections.
Sensitivity to light
Some reasons you may be squinting in light are cataracts, infections and migraines. Light sensitivity can also be a sign of ocular herpes. This is caused by the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the same strain that causes cold sores (genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2). It can lie dormant for months or years, then reappear. Creams and medications can help when the virus is active, says Dr Klifto.
Watery or teary eyes can be a sign you have allergies, as can sensitivity to light. Allergies are often seasonal as you react to the pollen in the air. There are also indoor allergens such as dust mites and you may react to irritants like smoke or perfume.
Your best course of action is to try and avoid the allergen. After that, try artificial tears.
There are many possible causes of blurry vision. You may need glasses or contact lenses, something which can happen at any age. Or you may be developing presbyopia, which is difficulty seeing things up close that comes with age.
More serious causes include glaucoma and macular degeneration, both of which are associated with ageing and that potentially can cause blindness.
If you’re experiencing blurry vision – or any ocular symptoms that get in the way of daily living, especially driving – see a doctor or ophthalmologist.
Loss of peripheral vision, or glaucoma, is often called the ‘silent thief of sight’, and is associated with advancing age.
“At first it is asymptomatic, but over time, damage to the optic nerve causes loss of peripheral vision that is irreversible,” says Dr Gorski. This is yet another reason to start having routine eye exams starting at age 40 or earlier if you have symptoms or risk factors. And make sure you get a full dilation exam – that’s when you are given drops to make the pupils bigger so he or she can see further into the back of your eye.
There are treatments for glaucoma but no cure.
Wavy lines are a symptom of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The disease affects the central portion of your vision, says Dr Gorski, and “symptoms can include blurry vision, wavy lines, central black spots or visual distortions with images appearing smaller or larger.”
Like glaucoma, macular degeneration is irreversible, though it can be treated with vitamin and mineral supplements, injections and laser therapy. It is diagnosed with a dilated eye exam.
“Anyone experiencing these symptoms should see a doctor right away,” says Dr Gorski.
Loss of vision
If you experience sudden loss of vision you need to see a doctor or go to the nearest emergency department right away. At the top of the list of potential causes is a stroke, says Dr Marioneaux. The damage from ischaemic strokes (those that are caused by a clot) can be minimised by prompt treatment with clot-dissolving drugs, usually within a window of three to four-and-a-half hours.
Loss of vision could also be a detached retina, vascular occlusion (a blocked blood vessel), or in rare cases, a brain tumour, says Dr Marioneaux.
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