Diabetes can harm your eyes. It can damage the small blood vessels in your retina, which is the back part of your eye. This condition is called diabetic retinopathy. Diabetes also increases your risk of having glaucoma, cataracts, and other eye problems.
You may not know there is any damage to your eyes until the problem is very bad. Your doctor can catch problems early if you get regular eye exams.
If your doctor finds eye problems early, medicines and other treatments may help prevent them from getting worse.
You need regular eye exams
Every year, you should have an eye exam by an eye doctor (ophthalmologist). Choose an eye doctor who takes care of people with diabetes.
Your eye exam may include:
Dilating your eyes to allow a good view of the entire retina. Only an eye doctor can do this exam.
At times, special photographs of your retina may replace the dilated eye exam. This is called digital retinal photography.
Your eye doctor may ask you to come more or less often than once a year.
High blood sugar can also cause blurred vision that is not related to diabetic retinopathy. This kind of blurred vision is caused by having too much sugar and water in the lens of the eye, which is in front of the retina.
If you already have eye problems, ask your doctor if you should avoid exercises that can strain the blood vessels in your eyes. Exercises that may make eye problems worse include:
Weight lifting and other exercises that make you strain
High-impact exercise, such as football or hockey
Make it easier for yourself at home
If your vision is affected by diabetes, make sure your home is safe enough that your chance of falling is low. Ask your doctor about having a home assessment done. For people with diabetes, the combination of poor vision and nerve problems in the legs and feet can affect balance. This increases the chance of falling.
If you cannot read the labels on your medicines easily:
Use felt tip pens to label medicine bottles so you can read them easily.
Use rubber bands or clips to tell medicine bottles apart.
Ask someone else to give you your medicines.
Always read labels with a magnifying lens.
Use a pillbox with compartments for days of the week and times of the day, if you need to take medicines more than once a day.
Never guess when taking your medicines. If you are unsure of your doses, talk with your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.
Keep medicines and other household items organized in a cabinet so you know where they are.
Use large-print cookbooks to make foods that are on your diabetes meal plan. Ask your doctor or nurse where you can get these books.
When to call the doctor
Call your doctor if:
You cannot see well in dim light.
You have blind spots.
You have double vision (you see 2 things when there is only 1).
Your vision is hazy or blurry and you cannot focus.
You have pain in your eyes.
You are having headaches.
You see spots floating in your eyes.
You cannot see things on the side of your field of vision.
Brownlee M, Aiello LP, Cooper ME, et al. Complications of diabetes mellitus. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011: chap 33.
Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.