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A Clearer Picture: Cataract Symptoms and Treatment

Good eyesight plays an important role in our daily lives, but we often take it for granted until we experience vision problems caused by genetics, physical changes, or aging. Luckily, regular eye exams will lead you to the right treatment options, whether that's simply getting glasses or contacts or something more.

One of the most common vision problems is cataracts -- and unfortunately, corrective lenses won't fix this one. In the U.S. alone, cataracts affect more than 24.4 million Americans over the age of 40, the American Academy of Ophthalmology reports. But do you know what a cataract is? Not everyone goes to an eye doctor, especially if they've never had any vision-related issues, which makes it vital that you at least recognize the symptoms so you can seek a diagnosis and treatment.

What Are Cataracts?

Understanding cataracts starts with an explanation of how our eyes work: Light rays bounce off objects and enter our eyes through the cornea and then the lens, which is made up of protein and water. The lens helps to focus light and images on the retina, a thin layer at the back of the eye. It picks up and transmits that light to your brain, which interprets the visual information.

Cataracts can occur because of two different changes to your lens. In the first one, protein clumps together and builds up on the lens, creating cloudy spots and decreased sharpness on your retina. Alternatively, as the clear lens naturally begins to age, it starts changing to a yellowish or brownish color.

Cataracts are caused by various factors, including aging, eye injuries, diabetes, genetics, prolonged use of steroid medication, X-ray treatments, and overexposure to UV rays. Note that, while cataracts can develop in either or both eyes, they cannot spread between eyes or to other people.

Recognizing Symptoms

Cataracts grow very slowly, so you might not even detect a change in your vision at first. The most common symptoms associated with cataracts are difficulty reading and performing daily tasks because of cloudy or blurry vision, as well as glare or halos that make it difficult to drive at night. In short, if normal day-to-day activity becomes difficult because of these types of changes, it's time to get to an eye doctor.

The Importance of Eye Exams

The early detection and treatment of eye conditions can help your vision stay strong, so have your eyes examined every 1 to 3 years by an optometrist who can check for signs of all kinds of eye problems.

Cataracts are specifically diagnosed based on your medical history and a physical eye exam. Your eye doctor will look for early signs of vision problems, including cataracts. There are a number of tests your optometrist might run to identify issues, including dilation.

Treatment Options

Cataract treatment is based on the level of difficulty you have performing normal, daily activities. Depending on your individual situation, your doctor might recommend:

  • Surgical methods. Cataract removal is one of the most common outpatient surgical procedures in the U.S. This technique involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with a clear, plastic lens called an intraocular lens. Recovery time is minimal, and most people notice vision improvement almost immediately after surgery. As with any surgery, it poses some risks such as infection and bleeding.
  • Nonsurgical methods. If you're not a candidate for surgery, your eye doctor might suggest a new eyeglasses prescription, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses to help you see better.

Bottom line: If you notice any new or worsening vision changes, schedule an appointment with your eye doctor immediately. Cataracts are very treatable, so being seen early will give you the best chance of improved sight -- and ultimately, a better quality of life.

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