Cataracts and glaucoma are two common issues impacting vision, but while both can lead to blindness, they affect the eye in different ways. Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, leading to irreversible damage to your vision. Cataracts affect the lens inside the eye, which cannot be reversed but can be treated by surgically removing the damaged lens and replacing it with a new artificial one.
Both cataracts and glaucoma are extremely common, representing the leading and second leading causes of blindness worldwide, respectively. Early intervention has been shown to be effective in reducing the effects of glaucoma. Meanwhile, cataracts seem to occur with age, regardless of what you do to stop them. If you’re worried about these two eye conditions, here’s what you need to know.
What Is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a condition where a buildup of fluid in your eye puts excessive pressure on your optic nerve, causing irreversible damage that impacts your sight.
Your eye is constantly making aqueous humor, which flows into your eye to maintain intraocular pressure, which is necessary to keep your eye healthy. However, the same amount of fluid that flows in should drain out. When this drainage doesn’t happen, the fluid builds up, increasing pressure. This pressure ends up impacting the millions of tiny nerve fibers inside your optic nerve, causing them to die off.
As pressure continues to damage your optic nerve, your vision will get progressively worse. The dying nerves will lead to blind spots in your vision, but you may not notice them until a great deal of your optic nerve fibers have died. Once all of the fibers die, you will become permanently blind.
Symptoms of Glaucoma
Glaucoma is worrisome because many people won’t know their vision is degrading until the optic nerve has experienced severe damage. However, routine eye exams can detect the warning signs of glaucoma.
As glaucoma progresses, you will start to notice symptoms, like:
- Eye pain
- Eye pressure
- Rainbow-colored halos when looking at lights
- Reduced visual acuity
- Blurred vision
- Narrowed vision (tunnel vision)
- Blind spots
- Nausea or vomiting
- Red eyes
Even if you have no symptoms, your eye doctor may measure your eye pressure to determine if it is normal or high. People with high eye pressure are considered glaucoma suspects, and additional monitoring will be provided to make sure you don’t develop glaucoma. Even without increased eye pressure, your doctor may put you on this list if they notice something different about your optic nerve.
Types of Glaucoma
There are many different types of glaucoma, categorized into primary and secondary.
- Open-angle glaucoma
- Normal-tension glaucoma
- Angle-closure glaucoma
- Congenital glaucoma
- Neovascular glaucoma
- Pigmentary glaucoma
- Exfoliation glaucoma
- Uveitic glaucoma
What Are Cataracts?
Inside our eyes is a natural lens, which is responsible for directing light rays into our eyes so we can see the world around us. This lens is supposed to be clear, but aging and other factors can lead to the proteins within the lens breaking down. The buildup of these proteins leads to an opaque spot, better known as clouding, which impacts how light passes through the lens.
Symptoms of Cataracts
Cataracts often show no signs in the early stage, but as they progress, you’ll start to notice symptoms like:
- Blurry vision
- Double vision
- Light sensitivity
- Reduced night vision
- Faded or yellowing colors
If you notice any of these signs, you should ask your ophthalmologist for an eye exam. They can also detect asymptomatic cataracts in their earliest stages by looking inside your eye during a dilated eye exam.
Types of Cataracts
There are a few different types of cataracts, and your eye doctor can help you determine which one you have.
- Age-related cataracts are the most common and develop due to natural aging processes.
- Traumatic cataracts can develop after a serious eye injury that damages your lens. These can form soon after the injury, or many years later.
- Radiation cataracts can be caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, but they can also be caused by radiation cancer treatment.
- Pediatric cataracts are a type that children can develop. If they’re born with a cataract, it’s known as a congenital cataract.
- Secondary cataracts occur when scar tissue in the eye following surgery causes your vision to cloud again. Your doctor can easily correct this with a quick and painless procedure using a laser.
How Are Glaucoma and Cataracts Similar?
Cataracts and glaucoma can both lead to vision problems, including total blindness. Neither condition has symptoms in its earliest stages, which is why most people don’t realize they have one of these problems until it has started significantly impacting their vision. However, both can be detected very early on with a dilated eye exam.
You should get a dilated eye exam at least once every two years if you are over the age of 60, as both cataracts and glaucoma can develop faster with age. If you have certain risk factors, your eye doctor may recommend getting an exam more often. You should go for a dilated eye exam at least every three years if you’re under the age of 60.
How Are Glaucoma and Cataracts Different?
While both cataracts and glaucoma can lead to blindness, one is “fixable” while the other is not. Cataracts can be removed through surgery, restoring your vision to near-perfect health. Meanwhile, glaucoma cannot be reversed as it causes damage to the optic nerve.
If you think you’re at risk of cataracts, there is no way to prevent them. However, glaucoma is treatable with medicine, laser, and surgery that can slow or stop its progression. This is why early detection of glaucoma is so important for protecting your eyesight.
Glaucoma and Cataracts Risk Factors
There are many risk factors that contribute to both glaucoma and cataracts, including:
- Family history
- UV exposure
- High blood pressure
- Eye injury
- Using steroid medications
People of African, Hispanic, or Asian heritage are particularly at risk of contracting glaucoma. A thin cornea and/or optic nerve can also increase your risk. For cataracts, additional risk factors include smoking, obesity, and having eye surgery done.
Diagnosing Eye Conditions
Your eye doctor can diagnose glaucoma or cataracts very early on, long before these conditions noticeably impact your vision. This is why getting your eye exams done regularly is important.
The initial diagnosis of cataracts or glaucoma is done using a dilated eye exam. This is quick and painless and involves eye drops being placed into your eye to make your pupil dilate or widen. Your eye doctor can then use a magnifying lens to examine your eye, looking at your retina and optic nerve.
If your doctor suspects glaucoma, they may also measure your eye pressure, inspect your eye’s drainage angle, test your peripheral vision, measure your optic nerve, and measure the thickness of your cornea. On the other hand, if your doctor suspects cataracts, they may use a slit lamp to examine the lens more closely.
When To Have Treatment
Your eye doctor will help you determine the next best steps to protect your vision based on their findings during your eye exam. Those steps will be different depending on what condition you have and how far along it is.
If you have cataracts, cataract surgery can be performed at any stage and there is no benefit to waiting. Your eye doctor can answer your questions about the procedure so that you can decide on your path forward.
If you have glaucoma, your doctor will discuss its severity and the potential to slow or stop its progression using surgery or medications. If you do nothing, your glaucoma will continue to worsen and can lead to total blindness that cannot be reversed.
Do You Have Questions?
Both cataracts and glaucoma are extremely common, but that doesn’t make them any less worrisome. With the potential to lead to total blindness, these eye conditions can seriously impact your quality of life — and you may not realize you have them until significant damage has occurred. If you’re wondering about your eye health, the best thing you can do is speak directly to your eye doctor. Book a consultation with SuraVision today by calling 713-730-2020 or visiting our website.