Your life and eyes 3 min read

Why does diabetes increase your risk of eye disease?

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Being diagnosed with diabetes can be a life-changing event, and it can be challenging to come to terms with at first. However, you must understand the health risks that can come with being diabetic. Diabetes can cause health complications in other areas of the body, including your eyes.

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of preventable sight loss in the UK. By recognising the signs of the eye conditions associated with diabetes, you can prevent future problems with your vision and eye health.

What effect does diabetes have on your eyes?

The changes in your blood sugar levels, caused by diabetes, can often affect many parts of your body and how you feel, this includes the lens inside your eye. Changes in your blood sugar levels can make your vision blurry, this can change throughout the day and even day to day as your levels fluctuate.

If you have diabetes, you might also be at higher risk of certain eye conditions when compared to others without diabetes; this can include cataracts, glaucoma and retinopathy.

Cataracts and diabetes

Cataracts are a common eye condition in people aged 65 or over and usually develop gradually over the years. As diabetes can affect the lens of your eye, being diabetic can increase your chances of developing cataracts. You may find that you contract cataracts at an earlier age than expected.

Close up of an eye with a cataract

When you have cataracts, the lens in your eye gradually becomes cloudy and impairs your vision. It is not painful, but it can cause symptoms like blurry vision, faded colours, double vision, or seeing a halo effect when looking at lights.

You can undergo cataract surgery to fix this, which is a very straightforward operation. It is one of the most common procedures in the UK.

Glaucoma and diabetes

If you have diabetes, you may be more likely to develop glaucoma. Glaucoma happens when there is a build-up of pressure in the eye, which can lead to damage around the retina or optic nerve if not treated.

Symptoms of glaucoma are not always noticeable but can include eye pain, redness, headaches and misty vision. Those with diabetes have a higher risk of developing glaucoma, but it can be easily treated if found early enough.

Diabetic retinopathy

Diagram showing nonproliferative and proliferative retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is directly related to diabetes and occurs when there is damage to the blood vessels in the eye. Over time, diabetes can affect the blood vessels supplying the retina of your eye due to high blood sugar levels, affecting how it works. There are different types of retinopathy, with each type progressing in stages.

Diabetic retinopathy doesn’t usually present noticeable symptoms because the condition is gradual. If you have had diabetes for a long time, or your blood sugar levels and blood pressure are high, you can be at higher risk.

Treatment is available for diabetic retinopathy, with several different options depending on which stage the condition has reached. Your eye care professional will be able to advise on a case by case basis.

Reducing your risk of eye disease if you have diabetes

The most important thing you can do to protect your overall health is to keep your diabetes under control as best you can to reduce your risk of many different health complications, including eye diseases. You should closely monitor your blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Maintaining a healthy weight and keeping fit is also essential to reduce your risk of eye disease. Poor diet and other similar lifestyle choices can trigger many eye conditions. Quitting smoking, or not taking up smoking in the first place, is also very important for everyone’s health but particularly if you have diabetes. Smoking can increase your blood pressure and may raise your blood sugar levels.  

If you have diabetes, the NHS offers an annual diabetic eye screening service for those aged 12 and above. It is crucial that you attend your screening appointments, as they can detect irregularities in your eyes before your vision is affected. You can find your nearest diabetic eye screening service here.

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