What Are Cataracts?
Cataracts affect millions of people each year, including more than half of all Americans 60 years of age and older. Cataracts are a painless clouding of the eye’s natural lens that is caused by a buildup of protein.
Risk Factors for Cataracts
In addition to aging, other factors can increase the risk of developing cataracts including the following:
- High blood pressure
- Excessive exposure to sunlight
- Exposure to radiation
- Previous eye injury or surgery
- Family history of cataracts
- Excessive alcohol use
- Prolonged use of corticosteroid medications
In rare instances, infants can be born with cataracts, which may be the result with an infection, such as rubella. This infection can be contracted by the mother during pregnancy. They may also occur in combination with some other birth defect. Occasionally, infants develop cataracts shortly after birth.
People with cataracts often do not realize they have them until their vision is affected. Symptoms of cataracts include the following:
- Sensitivity to bright light
- Poor night vision
- Frequent changes in corrective-lens prescriptions
- Blurred, hazy or double vision in one eye
- Decreased color perception
- Perception of halos around lights
- Yellow-tinged vision is also an indicator of cataracts.
How Are Cataracts Diagnosed?
Several tests, including the following, are performed to diagnose cataracts:
- Retinal examination under pupil dilation
- Visual acuity test
- Slit-lamp examination
- Tonometry to test intraocular pressure (IOP)
In combination, such tests help determine whether a patient has cataracts, or whether her or his vision problems have some other cause. They also assist in evaluating the degree of visual impairment, and whether surgery should be performed.
What Happens If Cataracts Go Untreated?
A cataract can form in one or both eyes. If left untreated, cataracts worsen over time and interfere with everyday activities such as reading or driving. Night vision is usually most affected. When cataracts are in their early stages, people are helped by brighter lighting. As cataracts get worse, however, most people require surgery.
Non-Surgical Treatment of Cataracts
Early cataracts can sometimes be treated with nonsurgical methods, including the following:
- Using magnifying lenses
- The use of brighter lighting
- Prescriptions to corrective-lenses
- Anti-glare sunglasses
If cataracts interfere with the ability to read, work, drive at night or other daily activities, cataract surgery will be recommended.
During cataract surgery, the clouded lens is removed and replaced with a clear artificial lens. The artificial lens, or intraocular lens (IOL), is positioned in the same place as your natural lens and will remain a permanent part of your eye. If cataracts are in both eyes, surgery is performed, usually 4 to 8 weeks apart, on one eye at a time. Cataract surgery is the most common surgical procedure in the United States.
Cataract Surgery Recovery
After cataract surgery, patients usually have some discomfort for a few days. While full healing generally occurs in about eight weeks.
Prevention of Cataracts
Although cataracts cannot be prevented, the development can sometimes be delayed by use of the following:
- Wearing wide-brimmed hats to block sunlight
- Wearing UV blocking sunglasses
- Not smoking; not drinking excessively
- Eating a diet high in antioxidants
Risks of Cataract Surgery
Cataract surgery is generally safe, but like any surgical procedure, there is a risk of infection and bleeding. Rare but serious risks include retinal detachment.