A cataract is a clouded or opaque area over the lens of the eye—an area that is normally transparent. As this thickening occurs, it prevents light rays from passing through the lens and focusing on the retina, which is light sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. This clouding occurs when some of the protein which makes up the lens begins to clump together and interferes with vision.
In its early stages, a cataract may not cause a problem. The cloudiness may affect only a small part of the lens. However, the cataract may grow larger over time and affect more of the lens. As less light reaches the retina, it becomes increasingly harder to see and vision may become dull and blurry. While cataracts cannot spread from one eye to another, many persons develop cataracts in both eyes.
Although scientists do not know for sure what causes cataracts, they suspect there could be several possible causes including:
- Excessive exposure to sunlight
- Steroid use
- Diuretic use
- Certain major tranquilizers
For several of the potential causes listed (i.e., steroids, diuretics, and/or major tranquilizers), additional research is needed to differentiate the effect of the disease from the effect of the drugs themselves.
The following are the most common symptoms of cataracts. However, each individual experiences cataracts differently. Symptoms may include:
- Cloudy or blurry vision
- Lights that appear too bright and/or present a glare or a surrounding halo
- Poor night vision
- Multiple vision (i.e. double vision)
- Colors that seem faded
- Increased nearsightedness, increasing the need to change eyeglass prescriptions
- Distortion of vision in either eye
Often in the disease's early stages, you may not notice any changes in your vision. Since cataracts tend to grow slowly, vision usually worsens gradually. Certain cataracts can also cause a temporary improvement in close-up vision, but this is likely to worsen as the cataract grows. The symptoms of cataracts may resemble other eye conditions. Consult a physician for diagnosis.
In addition to a complete medical history and eye examination, diagnostic procedures for cataracts may include:
- Visual acuity test - The common eye chart test (see below), which measures vision ability at various distances.
- Pupil dilation - The pupil is widened with eye drops to allow a close-up examination of the eye's retina.
Other tests may also be performed to help your eye care professional learn more about the health and structure of your eye.
Specific treatment for cataracts will be determined by your physician based on:
- Your age, overall health, and medical history
- Extent of the disease
- Expectations for the course of the disease
- Your opinion or preference
- Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
In its early stages, vision loss caused by a cataract may be treated with different eyeglasses, a magnifying glass, or stronger lighting. When these are no longer helpful, surgery is the only effective treatment available for most individuals. It is important to note that a cataract only needs to be removed when vision loss interferes with everyday activities such as driving, reading, or watching television. You and your doctor can make that decision together.
Possible risk factors for cataracts include:
- Age - Probably the greatest risk factor for cataracts is age. Although age-related cataracts may develop between 40 and 50 years old, vision is usually not affected greatly until after age 60.
- Geographic location - Recent studies have shown that people who live in high altitudes are more at risk for developing cataracts.
- Excessive sun exposure - People who spend more time in the sun may develop cataracts earlier. The American Academy of Ophthalmology now recommends wearing sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat to lessen exposure to ultraviolet rays.
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