While diabetes is often primarily thought of as a disease tied to nutrition, blood sugar and insulin, it impacts the entire body. One part of the body that can develop very dangerous symptoms, if not managed, are the eyes. Having diabetes increases your risk for several eye conditions, including glaucoma and cataracts. However, the primary concern for eye health in people with diabetes is the development of diabetic retinopathy.

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by high blood sugar due to diabetes. Over time, having too much sugar in your blood can damage your retina. The retina is the part of your eye that detects light and sends signals to your brain through a nerve in the back of your eye called the optic nerve.

Diabetes damages blood vessels all over the body. The damage to your eyes starts when sugar causes the tiny blood vessels in your retina to weaken and start to leak blood and fluid. To try to make up for these damaged blood vessels, your eyes begin to grow new blood vessels that don’t work well. These new blood vessels are very fragile and can often break and bleed inside the eye.

How do eye exams help?

Eye doctors can check for diabetic retinopathy as part of a dilated eye exam. The exam is simple and painless. The doctor will give eye drops to dilate (widen) your pupil, then check the eyes for diabetic retinopathy and other eye problems.

If you have diabetes, it’s very important to get regular eye exams. If you do develop diabetic retinopathy, early treatment can stop the damage and prevent blindness.

What are the symptoms?

You might not have symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. As the condition progresses, you might develop:

  • Spots or dark strings floating in your vision (floaters)
  • Blurred vision
  • Fluctuating vision
  • Dark or empty areas in your vision
  • Vision loss

How can it be prevented?

The best way to reduce the effects of diabetes on your eyes and the rest of your body is to control your blood sugar levels and maintain a healthier lifestyle. Attend regular appointments with your doctor to check your health, including the health of your eyes. In addition, maintaining a balanced diet, getting regular physical activity, quitting smoking and getting regular eye exams can help reduce the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.