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.
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 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.
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.
Sunlight can damage your eye. Wear dark glasses or shade your eyes until the effects of the drops wear off.
American Academy of Ophthalmology Retina Panel. Preferred Practice Pattern Guidelines. Diabetic retinopathy. 2012. Available at: www.aao.org/ppp. Accessed October 25, 2014.
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.