What are Cataracts?
Last updated: April 2019
Cataracts are a common age-related eye condition that will affect more than half of people in the United States in their lifetime.1 This article will discuss what cataracts are, what causes them, and how they are treated.
What are cataracts?
A cataract is simply a clouding of the lens of the eye.2 The lens of your eye is a clear part of your eye that focuses or bends light on the back of your eye, or your retina.1 This lens is mostly water and specific clear proteins that allow light to pass through. As you get older, the proteins slowly change, break down, and start to become cloudy.2 This cloudiness sometimes starts as a small clump, and eventually spreads. Sometimes these clumps discolor and make your vision appear to be brown or yellow tinged.1,2 Cataracts can happen in one eye or both, and may not happen in both eyes at the same time.1
How will I know if I have cataracts?
It is important to remember that cataracts generally happen relatively slowly. Changes to your eyesight will be gradual, so it may take a while before you recognize you have any vision issues. The most common symptoms of cataracts are1,2:
- Blurry vision
- Sensitivity to light, or halos around lights at night
- Decreased night vision, or feeling like you need more light to read
- Double vision (multiple images in one eye)
- Faded colors, or seeing colors with a yellow or brown hue
- Changing glasses prescriptions multiple times in one year
Testing for cataracts
Remember, these can also be symptoms of other eye issues, so if you suspect you have cataracts, talk to your eye care professional.1 Your eye doctor will run a series of tests, which may include a dilated eye exam (where the doctor dilates your pupil to look at the back of your eye), a test which will determine the pressure inside your eye, and tests to find out how well you see at various distances.1 Also, be aware that you can have multiple eye issues at once. Patients with glaucoma or macular degeneration can also get cataracts and need to have them treated.1
What causes cataracts?
This is most commonly due to aging; in fact, half of Americans have cataracts or surgery for cataracts by the age of 80.1 Cataracts can also be caused traumas to the lens of the eye or by exposure to certain types of radiation. Some cataracts are caused by other eye or health problems, and sometimes children are born with cataracts.1
Age-related cataracts can begin to form as early as the age of 40, but are often small and don’t interfere with a patient’s vision. Most patients don’t notice vision problems with cataracts until they are in their 60s.2 If your parents or siblings have cataracts, you may be at higher risk of developing cataracts as well.2
People who have been exposed to radiation (such as patients who have been treated for certain cancers), have had surgery for glaucoma, have diabetes or regularly use corticosteroids may be at increased risk for cataracts.2 People who smoke are also at increased risk for cataracts. If you spend a lot of time in the sunlight, (or other ultraviolet (UV) light such as tanning beds), make sure you are wearing sunglasses that protect your eyes from UV light, as increased UV light exposure can lead to cataracts.1 If you already have cataracts, you should still protect your eyes from UV light sources, as this may slow down the progression of your cataracts.2
How are cataracts treated?
When your cataract-related vision loss begins to interfere with your daily routine, for example, things like driving, reading or cooking, your eye care professional will discuss surgery with you. Be aware that if you have other eye issues, such as macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy, your doctor may discuss surgery before you have significant vision loss.1 Cataracts can interfere with your doctor’s ability to monitor or treat these eye diseases, so the cataract may be removed for the overall health of your eye.
Your eye care team may refer you to an eye surgeon to for your cataract surgery. Be sure you tell them about any other eye conditions you have and are being treated for. Your eye surgeon will run tests to find the best intra-ocular lens (IOL) for your eye.1 If you have cataracts in both eyes, your surgeon will only remove one cataract at a time, usually about a month apart.1
Preparing for cataract surgery
Like most other surgeries, you will be asked to refrain from food and water for at least 12 hours before your cataract surgery. Your surgeon will place drops in your eye to dilate your pupil before washing the area around your eye.1 Discuss with your surgeon if you will be awake or asleep for your surgery; if your surgeon tells you will be awake you can ask your doctor for a medication to help with anxiety that you may be feeling prior to your surgery.
What to expect with cataract surgery
If you are awake during your surgery, your doctor will give you a medication called an anesthetic to numb your eye and the area around it before your surgery. The surgery takes about an hour, and most people don’t experience any pain during the surgery.1 After the surgery, your eye may be covered with a patch, and you will be monitored for issues such as bleeding. Cataract surgery is generally done outpatient, so you should get to go home the same day as your surgery. You will not be able to drive yourself home, so you should have someone accompany you to your surgery.1
What to expect after cataract surgery
It is not uncommon to have some itching, discharge, or discomfort after your surgery. Your care team should give you a list of symptoms to look for that may be a sign of infection. They will also give you detailed care instructions, including medications and how to take them, how to protect your eyes after your surgery and a list of activities you should avoid until your eye is healed.1 You will follow up with your surgeon regularly after your cataract surgery to make sure your eyes are healing correctly. Most patients (more than 90%) find that they have better eyesight after their surgery than they did before they had cataracts.1
Cataracts can be a little scary, especially if you have other eye issues. If you have any questions or concerns about cataracts, talk to your eye care team. They will help you find the best plan for your specific eye needs and can help you with any concerns you have.
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