cataracts
Vision Health

Cataracts: What You Should Know

What is a cataract?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging. Cataracts are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans have either a cataract or have had cataract surgery.

A cataract can occur in either or both eyes. It cannot spread from one eye to the other.

What is the lens?

The lens is a clear part of the eye that helps to focus light, or an image, on the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

In a normal eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina. Once it reaches the retina, light is changed into nerve signals that are sent to the brain.

The lens must be clear for the retina to receive a sharp image. If the lens is cloudy from a cataract, the image you see will be blurred.

What causes cataracts?

The lens lies behind the iris and the pupil. It works much like a camera lens. It focuses light onto the retina at the back of the eye, where an image is recorded. The lens also adjusts the eye’s focus, letting us see things clearly both up close and far away. The lens is made of mostly water and protein. The

protein is arranged in a precise way that keeps the lens clear and lets light pass through it. But as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it harder to see.

Smoking and diabetes contribute to the development of cataract. Or, it may be that the protein in the lens just changes from the wear and tear it takes over the years.

How do cataracts affect vision?

Age-related cataracts can affect vision in two ways:

Clumps of protein reduce the sharpness of the image reaching the retina. The lens consists mostly of water and protein. When the protein clumps up, it clouds the lens and reduces the light that reaches the retina. The clouding may become severe enough to cause blurred vision. Most age-related cataracts develop from protein clumpings. When a cataract is small, the cloudiness affects only a small part of the lens. You

may not notice any changes in your vision. Cataracts tend to “grow” slowly, so vision gets worse gradually. Over time, the cloudy area in the lens may get larger, and the cataract may increase in size. Seeing may become more difficult. Your vision may get duller or blurrier.

The clear lens slowly changes to a yellowish/brownish color, adding a brownish tint to vision. As the clear lens slowly colors with age, your vision

gradually may acquire a brownish shade. At first, the amount of tinting may be small and may not cause a vision problem. Over time, the cataract usually increases in size. This gradual change in the amount of tinting does not affect the sharpness of the image transmitted to the retina.If you have advanced lens discoloration, you may not be able to identify blues and purples. You may be wearing what you believe to be a pair of black socks, only to find

out from friends that you are wearing purple socks.

When are you most likely to have a cataract?

The term “age-related” is a little misleading. You don’t have to be a senior citizen to get this type of cataract. In fact, people can have an age-related cataract in their 40s and 50s. But during middle age, most cataracts are small and do

not affect vision. It is after age 60 that most cataracts cause problems with a person’s vision.

Who is at risk for cataract?

The risk of cataract increases as you get older. Other risk factors for cataract include:

  • Certain diseases (for example, diabetes).
  • Personal behavior (smoking, alcohol use).
  • The environment (prolonged exposure to ultraviolet

sunlight).

What are the symptoms of a cataract?

The most common symptoms of a cataract are:

  • Cloudy or blurry vision.
  • Colors seem faded.
  • Headlights, lamps, or sunlight may appear too bright. A halo may appear around lights.
  • Poor night vision
  • Double vision or multiple images in one eye. (This symptom may clear as the cataract gets larger.)
  • Frequent prescription changes in your eyeglasses or contact lenses.

These symptoms also can be a sign of other eye problems. If you have any of these symptoms, check with your eye care professional.

Are there different types of cataract?

Yes. Although most cataracts are related to aging, there are other types of cataract:

Secondary cataract.

Cataracts can form after surgery for other eye problems, such as glaucoma. Cataracts also can develop in people who have other health problems, such

as diabetes. Cataracts are sometimes linked to steroid use.

Traumatic cataract.

Cataracts can develop after an eye injury, sometimes years later.

Congenital cataract.

Some babies are born with cataracts or develop them in childhood, often in both eyes. These cataracts may be so small that they do not affect vision. If they do, the lenses may need to be removed.

Radiation cataract.

Cataracts can develop after exposure to some types of radiation.

How is a cataract detected?

Cataract is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes:

Visual acuity test. This eye chart test measures how well you see at various distances.

Dilated eye exam.

Drops are placed in your eyes to widen, or dilate, the pupils. Your eye care professional uses a special magnifying lens to examine your retina and optic nerve for signs of damage and other eye problems. After the exam, your close-up vision may remain blurred for several hours.

Tonometry.

An instrument measures the pressure inside the eye. Numbing drops may be applied to your eye for this test. Your eye care professional also may do other tests to learn more about the structure and health of your eye.

How is a cataract treated?

The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses. If these measures do not help, surgery is the only effective treatment. Surgery involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens.

A cataract needs to be removed only when vision loss interferes with your everyday activities, such as driving, reading, or watching TV.

You and your eye care professional can make this decision together. Once you understand the benefits and risks of surgery, you can make an informed decision about whether cataract surgery is right for you. In most cases, delaying cataract surgery will not cause long-term damage to your eye or make the surgery more difficult. You do not have to rush into surgery. Sometimes a cataract should be removed even if it does not cause problems with your vision. For example, a cataract should be removed if it prevents examination or treatment of another eye problem, such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.

If you choose surgery, your eye care professional may refer you to a specialist to remove the cataract. If you have cataracts in both eyes that require surgery, the surgery will be performed on each eye at separate times, usually four weeks apart.

Is cataract surgery effective?

Cataract removal is one of the most common operations performed in the United States. It also is one of the safest and most effective types of surgery. In about 90 percent of cases, people who have cataract surgery have better vision afterward.

What are the risks of cataract surgery?

As with any surgery, cataract surgery poses risks, such as infection and bleeding. Before cataract surgery, your doctor may ask you to temporarily stop taking certain medications that increase the risk of bleeding during surgery. After surgery, you must keep your eye clean, wash your hands before touching your eye, and use the prescribed medications to help minimize the risk of infection. Serious infection can result in loss of vision. Cataract surgery slightly increases your risk of retinal detachment. Other eye disorders, such as high myopia (nearsightedness), can further increase your risk of retinal detachment after cataract surgery. One sign of a retinal detachment is a sudden increase in flashes or floaters. Floaters are little “cobwebs” or specks that seem to float about in your field of vision. If you notice a sudden increase in floaters or flashes, see an eye care professional immediately.

A retinal detachment is a medical emergency.If necessary, go to an emergency service or hospital. Your eye must be examined by a physician as soon as possible. A retinal detachment causes no pain.

Early treatment for retinal detachment often can prevent permanent loss of vision. The longer the retina stays detached, the less likely you will regain good vision once you are treated. Even if you are treated promptly, some vision may be lost.

This article originally appeared on the web site of the National Eye Institute, As part of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Eye Institute’s mission is to “conduct and support research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to blinding eye diseases, visual disorders, mechanisms of visual function, preservation of sight, and the special health problems and requirements of the blind.”