You’ve heard of cataracts, but do you really know what they are and what to watch for? Learn more about this common eye condition.
What are cataracts?
Cataracts occur when the natural lens of your eye becomes clouded. Light can no longer pass through the lens, causing changes in vision.
How do cataracts develop?
The lens of your eye is flexible and transparent, but as you age, this changes. The lens becomes thicker and less flexible. Proteins in the lens start to break down and clump together, and that clump is what we know as a cataract.
Cataracts usually develop slowly, so slowly that you likely won’t even notice them at first. Eventually, however, images that were once clear and sharp appear foggy or hazy. That’s because the lens is the part of the eye that focuses light. When it can no longer do that, due to the dense clump of proteins, your eyesight becomes compromised.
Are there different types of cataracts?
There are four main kinds:
- Age-related: The most common, these can start forming in the early stages around age 40. More than half of all adults aged 80 or older in the United States either have cataracts, or have had surgery for cataracts.
- Congenital or Pediatric: These occur when a baby is born with cataracts or a child develops them later on, possibly due to genetics, an infection or trauma during pregnancy or childhood.
- Traumatic: This type occurs after serious injuries to your lens.
- Secondary: Not actually cataracts, this is a condition that sometimes results after surgery. The cloud forms on the outside of your lens, rather than the inside, but you’ll experience similar vision problems.
What are the symptoms?
Cataracts don’t always affect the same part of the lens. They might start at the center or on the perimeter, and where they occur indicates symptoms you might experience.
- Nuclear cataracts affect the center of the lens. These could make you more nearsighted initially, but as they progress, you might notice your vision clouds further, the lens turns yellow to brown, and you have difficulty seeing color.
- Cortical cataracts affect the edges of the lens. They might start as whitish streaks, which grow to the center of the lens.
- Posterior subcapsular cataracts affect the back of the lens. These progress more quickly than those that affect other parts of the lens, and starts right where the light passes through. You might be more sensitive to bright light and glare, see halos around lights at night, or have trouble reading.
Some other symptoms you might experience include:
- Cloudy or hazy vision
- Increased difficulty seeing at night
- Double vision in one eye
- Colors appearing faded or yellowish
- Needing brighter light for reading or other close activities
How do I know if I’m at risk?
Increasing age is the primary risk, but there are other risks that, where manageable, may delay the progression:
- Drinking alcohol
- High blood pressure
- Too much time in the sun
- Previous eye injury
- Previous eye surgery
Are they treatable?
Early on, your doctor may prescribe glasses or contacts to correct your vision, but ultimately you may need cataract surgery.
During the surgery, your natural lens will be removed and replaced with an artificial lens (also called an intraocular lens).
As always, getting a regular comprehensive eye exam is one of best ways to detect cataracts and many other eye problems early on. Talk to your eye doctor to find out how often you should have an exam, and if you have other health conditions (such as diabetes or high blood pressure), make sure you’re working with your doctor to manage your condition in the best possible way.