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Diabetes eye exams

Diabetes can harm your eyes. It can damage the small blood vessels in your retina, or the back of your eye. This condition is called diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetes also increases your risk of glaucoma and other eye problems.

You may not know your eyes are harmed until the problem is very bad. Your doctor can catch problems early if you get regular eye exams. This is very important. The early stages of diabetic retinopathy don't cause changes in vision and you won't have symptoms. Only an eye exam can detect the problem, so that steps can be taken to prevent the retinopathy from getting worse.

You Need Regular eye Exams

Even if the doctor who takes care of your diabetes checks your eyes, you need an eye exam every 1 to 2 years by an eye doctor who takes care of people with diabetes. An eye doctor has equipment that can check the back of your eye much better than your regular doctor can.

If you have eye problems because of diabetes, you will probably see your eye doctor more often. You may need special treatment to prevent your eye problems from getting worse.

You may see two different types of eye doctors:

  • An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who is an eye specialist trained to diagnose and treat eye problems.
  • An optometrist is a health care provider trained to diagnose and treat problems with your vision. Many can do screening exams for damage from diabetes. Once you have eye disease caused by diabetes, you need to see an ophthalmologist.

What is a Dilated Retinal Exam?

The doctor will check your vision using a chart of random letters of different sizes. This is called the Snellen chart.

You will then be given eye drops to widen (dilate) the pupils of your eyes so that the doctor can better see the back of the eye. You may feel stinging when the drops are first placed. You may have a metallic taste in your mouth.

To see the back of your eye, the doctor looks through a special magnifying glass using a bright light. The doctor can then see areas that may be damaged by diabetes:

  • Blood vessels in the front or middle parts of the eye
  • The back of the eye
  • The optic nerve area

Another device called a slit lamp is used to see the clear surface of the eye (cornea).

The doctor may take photos of the back of your eye to get a more detailed exam.

The eye doctor may use a special camera to take photos of your retina without dilating your eyes. The doctor then views the photos and lets you know if you need more tests or treatment.

After Your eye Exam

If you had drops to dilate your eyes, your vision will be blurred for about 6 hours. It will be harder to focus on things that are near. You should have someone drive you home.

Sunlight can damage your eye. Wear dark glasses or shade your eyes until the effects of the drops wear off.

Alternative Names

Diabetic retinopathy - eye exams; Diabetes - eye exams; Glaucoma - diabetic eye exam; Macular edema - diabetic eye exam

References

American Academy of Ophthalmology. Diabetic Retinopathy PPP - Updated 2016. AAO.org. www.aao.org/preferred-practice-pattern/diabetic-retinopathy-ppp-updated-2016. Accessed August 22, 2016.

Brownlee M, Aiello LP, Cooper ME, Vinik AI, Plutzky J, Boulton AJM. Complications of diabetes mellitus. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 33.

Lim JI, Rosenblatt BJ, Benson WE. Diabetic retinopathy. In: Yanoff M, Duker JS, eds. Ophthalmology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 6.21.

Standards of medical care in diabetes-2016: summary of revisions. Diabetes Care. 2016;39 Suppl 1:S4-S5. PMID: 26696680 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26696680.

Review Date 8/7/2016

Updated by: Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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