First, you will be asked if you are having any eye or vision problems. You will be asked to describe these problems, how long you have had them, and any factors that have made them better or worse.
Your history of glasses or contact lenses will also be reviewed. The eye doctor will then ask questions about your overall health, including any medications you take and your family's medical history.
Next, the doctor will check your vision (visual acuity) using a Snellen chart.
You will be asked to read random letters that become smaller line by line as your eyes move down the chart. Newer electronic devices have been developed that check vision in a way similar to a Snellen chart.
To see if you need glasses, the doctor will place several lenses in front of your eye, one at a time, and ask you when the letters on the Snellen chart become easier to see. See also: Refraction test
Other parts of the exam include tests to:
See if you have proper three-dimensional (3D) vision (stereopsis)
Check your side (peripheral) vision
Check the eye muscles by asking you to look in different directions at a penlight or other small object
Examine the pupils with a penlight to see that they respond (constrict) properly to light
To see inside your eye, the doctor looks through a magnifying glass that has a light on the end (an ophthalmoscope). The device allows the doctor to see the retina and nearby blood vessels, back of the eye (fundus), and optic nerve area.
Often, you'll be given eye drops to open up (dilate) your pupils so that the doctor can view the structures in the back of the eye.
Another magnifying device called a slit lamp is used to:
See the clear surface of the eye (eyelids, cornea, conjunctiva, sclera, and iris)
Make an appointment with an eye doctor (some take walk-in patients). Avoid eye strain on the day of the test. You may need someone to drive you home if the doctor uses eye drops to dilate your pupils.
How the test will feel
The tests cause no pain or discomfort.
Why the test is performed
All children should have vision screening in a pediatrician's or family practitioner's office around the time when they learn the alphabet, and then every 1 to 2 years afterward. Screening should begin sooner if any eye problems are suspected.
Between ages 20 and 39:
A complete eye exam should be done every 5 to 10 years
Adults who wear contact lenses often need yearly eye exams
Certain eye symptoms or disorders may require more frequent exams
Adults over age 40 who have no risk factors or ongoing eye conditions should be screened:
Every 2 to 4 years for adults ages 40 - 54
Every 1 to 3 years for adults ages 55 - 64
Every 1 to 2 years for adults age 65 and older
Depending on your risk factors for eye diseases and your current symptoms or illnesses, your eye doctor may recommend that you have exams more often.
Various eye and medical problems can be found by a routine eye test, including:
This list may not include all possible causes of abnormal results.
What the risks are
If you received drops to dilate your eyes for the ophthalmoscopy, your vision will be blurred and sunlight can damage your eye. Wear dark glasses or shade your eyes to avoid discomfort until the dilation wears off, usually in several hours.
Many eye diseases, especially glaucoma and retinal detachment, are curable or can be treated if detected early.
American Academy of Ophthalmology Preferred Practice Patterns Committee. Preferred Practice Pattern Guidelines. Comprehensive Adult Medical Eye Evaluation. San Francisco, CA: American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2010. Accessed January 17, 2011.
Olitsky SE, Hug D, Smith LP. Examination of the eye. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 618.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine; and Franklin W. Lusby, MD, Ophthalmologist, Lusby Vision Institute, La Jolla, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.