Diabetes can harm your eyes. It can damage the small blood vessels in your retina, or the back of your eye. This is called diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetes also increases your risk of glaucoma and other eye problems.
You may not know your eyes are harmed until the problem is very bad. Your doctor can catch problems early if you get regular eye exams.
You Need Regular Eye Exams
Even if the doctor who takes care of your diabetes checks your eyes, you need an eye exam every 1-2 years by an eye doctor who takes care of people with diabetes.
If you have eye problems because of diabetes, you will probably see your eye doctor more often. Sometimes, your doctor may tell you to come less often.
You may see two different types of eye doctors:
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor trained to diagnose and treat eye problems.
An optometrist is a health care provider trained to diagnose and treat eye problems. Many can do screening exams for damage from diabetes. Once you have eye disease caused by diabetes, you will see an ophthalmologist.
What Is a Dilated Retinal Exam?
The doctor will check your vision using a chart of random letters of different sizes. This is called the Snellen chart.
You will then be given eye drops so that the doctor can better see the back of the eye. You may feel stinging when they are first placed. You may have a metallic taste in your mouth.
To see the back of your eye, the doctor looks through a magnifying glass using a bright light. The doctor can then see areas that may be damaged by diabetes:
Blood vessels in the front or middle parts of the eye
The back of the eye
The optic nerve area
Another device called a slit lamp is used to see the clear surface of the eye (cornea).
After Your Eye Exam
If you had drops to dilate your eyes, your vision will be blurred for about 6 hours. It will be harder to focus on things that are near.
Sunlight can damage your eye. Wear dark glasses or shade your eyes until the drops wear off.
American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes -- 2010. Diabetes Care. 2010 Jan;33 Suppl 1:S11-61.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.