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Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your eyes healthy

On this page:

What are diabetes problems?

Too much glucose in the blood for a long time can cause diabetes problems. This high blood glucose, also called blood sugar, can damage many parts of the body, such as the heart, blood vessels, eyes, and kidneys. Heart and blood vessel disease can lead to heart attacks and strokes. You can do a lot to prevent or slow down diabetes problems.

This booklet is about eye problems caused by diabetes. You will learn the things you can do each day and during each year to stay healthy and prevent diabetes problems.

Drawing of a cross section of the eye with the retina, blood vessels on the retina, the optic nerve, the vitreous, and the lens labeled.
High blood glucose can cause eye problems.


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What should I do each day to stay healthy with diabetes?

Drawing of a bowl containing bananas, grapes, and an apple. Follow the healthy eating plan that you and your doctor or dietitian have worked out.
Drawing of a silhouette of a woman who is walking. Be active a total of 30 minutes most days. Ask your doctor what activities are best for you.
Drawing of an open pill container on its side with some pills spilling out and an insulin bottle. Take your medicines as directed.
Drawing of a hand holding a blood glucose meter that reads 114. Check your blood glucose every day. Each time you check your blood glucose, write the number in your record book.
Drawing of two hands holding a bare foot. Check your feet every day for cuts, blisters, sores, swelling, redness, or sore toenails.
Drawing of a toothbrush with toothpaste on it and an open container of floss with some floss hanging out. Brush and floss your teeth every day.
Drawing of two arms with a blood pressure cuff around one arm. The hand of the other arm is holding the pump connected to the cuff. Control your blood pressure and cholesterol.
Drawing of a lit cigarette in a circle covered by a slash sign to show that smoking is not allowed. Don't smoke.

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What can I do to prevent diabetes eye problems?

You can do a lot to prevent diabetes eye problems.

  • Keep your blood glucose and blood pressure as close to normal as you can.

  • Have an eye care professional examine your eyes once a year. Have this exam even if your vision is OK. The eye care professional will use drops to make the black part of your eyes-pupils-bigger. This process is called dilating your pupil, which allows the eye care professional to see the back of your eye. Finding eye problems early and getting treatment right away will help prevent more serious problems later on.

Drawing of an eye with a dilated pupil.
Dilated eye.
Drawing of an eye with an undilated pupil.
Undilated eye.
  • Ask your eye care professional to check for signs of cataracts and glaucoma. See What other eye problems can happen to people with diabetes? to learn more about cataracts and glaucoma.

  • If you are planning to get pregnant soon, ask your doctor if you should have an eye exam.

  • If you are pregnant and have diabetes, see an eye care professional during your first 3 months of pregnancy.

  • Don't smoke.

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How can diabetes hurt my eyes?

High blood glucose and high blood pressure from diabetes can hurt four parts of your eye:

  • Retina. The retina is the lining at the back of the eye. The retina's job is to sense light coming into the eye.

  • Vitreous. The vitreous is a jelly-like fluid that fills the back of the eye.

  • Lens. The lens is at the front of the eye. The lens focuses light on the retina.

  • Optic nerve. The optic nerve is the eye's main nerve to the brain.

Drawing of a cross section of an eye with the retina, blood vessels on the retina, the optic nerve, the vitreous, and the lens labeled.
A side view of the eye.

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How can diabetes hurt the retinas of my eyes?

Retina damage happens slowly. Your retinas have tiny blood vessels that are easy to damage. Having high blood glucose and high blood pressure for a long time can damage these tiny blood vessels.

First, these tiny blood vessels swell and weaken. Some blood vessels then become clogged and do not let enough blood through. At first, you might not have any loss of sight from these changes. Have a dilated eye exam once a year even if your sight seems fine.

One of your eyes may be damaged more than the other. Or both eyes may have the same amount of damage.

Diabetic retinopathy is the medical term for the most common diabetes eye problem.

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What happens as diabetes retina problems get worse?

As diabetes retina problems get worse, new blood vessels grow. These new blood vessels are weak. They break easily and leak blood into the vitreous of your eye. The leaking blood keeps light from reaching the retina.

You may see floating spots or almost total darkness. Sometimes the blood will clear out by itself. But you might need surgery to remove it.

Over the years, the swollen and weak blood vessels can form scar tissue and pull the retina away from the back of the eye. If the retina becomes detached, you may see floating spots or flashing lights.

You may feel as if a curtain has been pulled over part of what you are looking at. A detached retina can cause loss of sight or blindness if you don't take care of it right away.

Call your eye care professional right away if you are having any vision problems or if you have had a sudden change in your vision.

Three drawings of cross sections of an eye showing no diabetes damage, some diabetes damage, and a lot of diabetes damage, with the retina, blood vessels on the retina, the optic nerve, the vitreous, and the lens labeled on each.

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What can I do about diabetes retina problems?

Keep your blood glucose and blood pressure as close to normal as you can.

Your eye care professional may suggest laser treatment, which is when a light beam is aimed into the retina of the damaged eye. The beam closes off leaking blood vessels. It may stop blood and fluid from leaking into the vitreous. Laser treatment may slow the loss of sight.

If a lot of blood has leaked into your vitreous and your sight is poor, your eye care professional might suggest you have surgery called a vitrectomy. A vitrectomy removes blood and fluid from the vitreous of your eye. Then clean fluid is put back into the eye. The surgery can make your eyesight better.

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How do I know if I have retina damage from diabetes?

You may not have any signs of diabetes retina damage, or you may have one or more signs:

  • blurry or double vision
  • rings, flashing lights, or blank spots
  • dark or floating spots
  • pain or pressure in one or both of your eyes
  • trouble seeing things out of the corners of your eyes
Drawing of an eye chart with rows of letters in decreasing sizes used for an eye exam.
Normal vision
Drawing of an eye chart with rows of letters in decreasing sizes used for an eye exam. The image is blurred.
Blurry vision

If you have retina damage from diabetes, you may have blurry or double vision.

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What other eye problems can happen to people with diabetes?

You can get two other eye problems—cataracts and glaucoma. People without diabetes can get these eye problems, too. But people with diabetes get these problems more often and at a younger age.

  • A cataract is a cloud over the lens of your eye, which is usually clear. The lens focuses light onto the retina. A cataract makes everything you look at seem cloudy. You need surgery to remove the cataract. During surgery your lens is taken out and a plastic lens, like a contact lens, is put in. The plastic lens stays in your eye all the time. Cataract surgery helps you see clearly again.

  • Glaucoma starts from pressure building up in the eye. Over time, this pressure damages your eye's main nerve—the optic nerve. The damage first causes you to lose sight from the sides of your eyes. Treating glaucoma is usually simple. Your eye care professional will give you special drops to use every day to lower the pressure in your eyes. Or your eye care professional may want you to have laser surgery.

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Pronunciation Guide

cataracts (KAT-uh-rakts)

dilating (DY-layt-eeng)

glaucoma (glaw-KOH-muh)

lens (lenz)

optic nerve (AHP-tik) (nerv)

retina (RET-ih-nuh)

retinopathy (RET-ih-NOP-uh-thee)

vitrectomy (vih-TREK-tuh-mee)

vitreous (VIT-ree-uhss)

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For More Information

Eye Care Professionals (ophthalmologists, optometrists)

Drawing of a man seated at a table while talking on the phone and writing a note on a pad of paper.To find an eye care professional near you, ask your doctor for a recommendation, contact a nearby hospital or medical school, or call a state or county association of ophthalmologists or optometrists.

See the American Academy of Ophthalmology website at www.aao.org leaving site icon and use the "Find an Eye M.D." service.

See the American Optometric Association website at www.aoa.org leaving site icon and click on "Find an Optometrist" or call 1-800-365-2219.

Diabetes Teachers (nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, and other health professionals)

To find a diabetes teacher near you, call the American Association of Diabetes Educators toll-free at 1-800-TEAMUP4 (1-800-832-6874), or look on the Internet at www.diabeteseducator.org leaving site icon and click on "Find a Diabetes Educator."

Dietitians

To find a dietitian near you, contact the Academy of Nutrition and Dietics at www.eatright.org leaving site icon and click on "Find a Registered Dietition."

Government

The National Eye Institute (NEI) is part of the National Institutes of Health. To learn more about eye problems, write or call the NEI, 2020 Vision Place, Bethesda, MD 20892-3655, 301-496-5248; or see www.nei.nih.gov on the Internet.

To get more information about taking care of diabetes, contact

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3560
Phone: 1-800-860-8747
TTY: 1-866-569-1162
Fax: 703-738-4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov

National Diabetes Education Program
1 Diabetes Way
Bethesda, MD 20814-9692
Phone: 1-888-693-NDEP (1-888-693-6337)
TTY: 1-866-569-1162
Fax: 703-738-4929
Email: ndep@mail.nih.gov
Internet: www.ndep.nih.gov
www.yourdiabetesinfo.org

American Diabetes Association
1701 North Beauregard Street
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone: 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383)
Fax: 703-549-6995
Email: AskADA@diabetes.org
Internet: www.diabetes.org leaving site icon

JDRF
26 Broadway, 14th Floor
New York, NY 10004
Phone: 1–800–533–CURE (1–800–533–2873)
Fax: 212–785–9595
Email: info@jdrf.org
Internet: www.jdrf.org leaving site icon

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More in the Series

The "Prevent Diabetes Problems" series has seven booklets that can help you learn more about how to prevent diabetes problems.

Photos of the seven booklet covers in the Prevent Diabetes Problems Series.

For free single copies of these booklets, write, call, fax, or email the

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3560
Phone: 1-800-860-8747
TTY: 1-866-569-1162
Fax: 703-738-4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov

These booklets are also available at www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov on the Internet.

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Acknowledgments

The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse thanks the people who helped review or field-test this publication:

For the American Association of Diabetes Educators
Lynn Grieger, R.D., C.D.E.
Arlington, VT
Celia Levesque, R.N., C.D.E.
Montgomery, AL
Teresa McMahon, Pharm.D., C.D.E.
Seattle, WA
Barbara Schreiner, R.N., M.N., C.D.E.
Galveston, TX

For the American Diabetes Association
Phyllis Barrier, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.
Alexandria, VA
Linda Haas, Ph.C., R.N., C.D.E.
Seattle, WA
Kathleen Mahoney, M.S.N., R.N., C.D.E.
Drexel Hill, PA
Randi Kington, M.S., R.N., C.S., C.D.E.
Hartford, CT

For the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
Baltimore, MD
Jan Drass, R.N., C.D.E.

For the Diabetes Research and Training Centers
Albert Einstein School of Medicine
Norwalk Hospital
Norwalk, CT
Jill Ely, R.N., C.D.E.
Sam Engel, M.D.
Pam Howard, A.P.R.N., C.D.E.

Indiana University School of Medicine
Indianapolis, IN
Madelyn Wheeler, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., C.D.E.

VA/JDF Diabetes Research Center
Vanderbilt School of Medicine
Nashville, TN
Ok Chon Allison, M.S.N., R.N.C.S., A.N.P., C.D.E.
Barbara Backer, B.S.
James W. Pichert, Ph.D.
Alvin Powers, M.D.
Melissa E. Schweikhart
Michael B. Smith
Kathleen Wolffe, R.N.

For the Grady Health System Diabetes Clinic
Atlanta, GA
Ernestine Baker, R.N., F.N.P., C.D.E.
Kris Ernst, R.N., C.D.E.
Margaret Fowke, R.D., L.D.
Kay Mann, R.N., C.D.E.

For the Indian Health Service
Albuquerque, NM
Ruth Bear, R.D., C.D.E.
Dorinda Bradley, R.N., C.D.E.
Terry Fisher, R.N.
Lorraine Valdez, R.N., C.D.E.

Red Lake, MN
Charmaine Branchaud, B.S.N., R.N., C.D.E.

For the Medlantic Research Center
Washington, DC
Resa Levetan, M.D.

For the National Eye Institute
Judith Stein
Bethesda, MD

For the Texas Diabetes Council
Texas Department of Health
Austin, TX
Luby Garza-Abijaoude, M.S., R.D., L.D.

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National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse

1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3560
Phone: 1–800–860–8747
TTY: 1–866–569–1162
Fax: 703–738–4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov

The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1978, the Clearinghouse provides information about diabetes to people with diabetes and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. The NDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about diabetes.

This publication is not copyrighted. The Clearinghouse encourages users of this publication to duplicate and distribute as many copies as desired.

This publication may contain information about medications and, when taken as prescribed, the conditions they treat. When prepared, this publication included the most current information available. For updates or for questions about any medications, contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration toll-free at 1–888–INFO–FDA (1–888–463–6332) or visit www.fda.gov. Consult your health care provider for more information.


NIH Publication No. 09–4279
November 2008

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Page last updated September 18, 2013


The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3560
Phone: 1–800–860–8747
TTY: 1–866–569–1162
Fax: 703–738–4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov

Department of Health and Human ServicesThe National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney DiseasesUSA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state, and local government web resources and services.This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.

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