Regular eye checkups can help prevent a serious problem.

Preventing Eye Problems

While your eyes are amazingly intricate and resilient, there is only so much abuse they can take. Over the course of many years, simple day-to-day actions can damage your eyes. Here are some dangers to avoid.

Ultraviolet Exposure

Sunglasses are much more than "cool shades." They're protective barriers that cut down exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, a portion of the sun's rays that can cause such eye diseases as cataracts and macular degeneration.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that you protect your eyes whenever you're in the sun long enough to get a suntan or sunburn. Wearing a brimmed hat cuts sunlight exposure to your eyes by about half. Sunglasses will further boost your protection. The sun's rays can also reflect off of water, sand, and snow, so it's advisable to wear sunglasses in addition to a wide-brimmed hat in these environments.

You can get good UV blocking even with inexpensive sunglasses. Recommendations are that no more than 30 percent of sunlight should reach your eyes. In bright conditions, such as on sunlit ski slopes or the beach, it might be better to wear sunglasses with a transmission factor of only 10 percent.

Keep in mind, too, that dark glasses with no UV blocking give you no protection whatsoever. In fact, they boost your risk of eye damage because they dilate your pupils. That lets more light in without blocking the harmful UV rays.

Here are a few points to keep in mind when you're buying sunglasses:

  • Lens color has no bearing on level of UV protection.
  • Polarized lenses are not necessary for UV protection, but they do cut glare from reflective surfaces.
  • Sunglasses that are darker on top and gradually clearing toward the bottom don't shield your eyes well enough when you're out in the open sunlight, such as on the beach or ski slope. They're fine, however, when you're driving in a car.
  • Test nonprescription sunglasses for distortion by holding them a few inches in front of your eyes. Look through the glasses to focus on some rectangular shape, such as a window frame. Move the glasses slowly from side to side, then up and down. If straight lines look squiggly, the lenses are poor quality.
  • Be sure the sunglasses feel comfortable; otherwise you won't want to wear them for long periods of time.
  • Be sure the sunglasses are labeled as providing protection from ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B (UVA and UVB) radiation.
  • Remember that price is not a good indicator of sunglasses' protective quality. Some very expensive designer sunglasses do not provide very good protection.
Eyestrain

Eyestrain, such as from reading or sewing, doesn't really injure the eyes, but it makes them tired. To be exact, it isn't really even the eyes that get tired or strained but the muscles around the eyes.

The best cure for eyestrain is to give your eye muscles a rest. Take a break from what you're doing. Close your eyes and give them nothing to look at for a while, or stare off into the distance for a moment. Also, having sufficient light to read or work by helps prevent eyestrain in the first place. An adjustable gooseneck lamp lets you concentrate light where you most need it and not where it will irritate your eyes. Remember, the finer the task, the more light required.

Although eyestrain doesn't harm your eyes, it can cause discomfort, such as watery or dry eyes, difficulty focusing, fatigue, and perhaps an accompanying headache. Also, although eyestrain itself isn't serious, it can be one symptom of serious conditions, such as glaucoma. If you're bothered by long-lasting, frequently recurring eyestrain, you should see an eye-care professional.

Diabetic Eye Care

People with diabetes need to be particularly concerned with protecting their eyes. The complications of diabetes pose several serious threats to the eyes. The major eye-disease risk for people with diabetes is diabetic retinopathy, in which abnormal blood vessels grow across the retina, damaging and sometimes permanently destroying vision. Diabetic retinopathy afflicts about one-third of people with diabetes, typically after they've had diabetes for at least a decade. About 5 percent of people with diabetes end up losing their sight because of retinopathy. In fact, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in people younger than 60 years old in the United States and Canada.

Diet, medication, and exercise are key to controlling diabetes and reducing the risks of retinopathy. High blood pressure increases the chances of developing retinopathy. Keeping close control of blood sugar levels is known to decrease a person's risk of progressive retinopathy. Anyone with diabetes who's at risk should be screened at least yearly for this eye disease, even if there are no vision symptoms. If caught early, advancement of retinopathy can sometimes be halted by laser treatments. Those recently diagnosed with Type II diabetes should have an eye exam soon after the diagnosis is made. It's common to have diabetes for some time before being diagnosed, and eye damage may already have occurred.

Regular Checkups

True to human nature, most of us wait until our eyes are bothering us before we get a checkup. The problem with that approach is that we could have an eye disease without knowing it. By the time we get to an eye-care specialist, we might have lost some valuable time for treatment -- and some vision capability. Catching an eye problem early boosts the chance of successfully treating it.

So your best bet is to get a checkup every two to four years between the ages of 40 and 65 and every one or two years after age 65. If you have diabetes or a family history of conditions such as glaucoma or macular degeneration, get a checkup once a year. Blacks and people with severe shortsightedness are also at increased risk of glaucoma and should consider regular screenings.

What sort of eye specialist should you visit? Both ophthalmologists and optometrists are trained to evaluate eye problems. In most places, only ophthalmologists -- who are medical doctors -- can prescribe medications to treat eye diseases. And they are the only ones who can do eye surgery. A third kind of eye specialist, an optician, is trained only to make and fit prescription eyewear.

If you are concerned that you may have a serious eye defect, we list and explain some of the serious eye disorders on the next page.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.