Common Questions About Cataracts
By the time you turn 80, there’s a 50% chance you will have—or have had in the past—a cataract. More than 2 out of 5 cases of blindness around the world are due to cataracts. The more you know about cataracts, the better able you are to protect your eyes now and prevent vision problems in the future.
What is a cataract and how does it develop?
A cataract is an area of cloudiness on the lens of the eye. The lens is normally clear, and helps focus images on the retina. The retina then changes the visual image to electrical signals that are sent to the brain. If the lens is cloudy, it can become harder for the eye and brain to process images—making it harder to see. Cataracts consist of degraded lens proteins, crystals, and an overall increase in water content. Cataracts can develop in one or both eyes at a time, but they don’t spread like an infection.
What are the symptoms of a cataract?
If you have a cataract, you may experience these vision changes:
- Brownish- or yellowish-tinted vision
- Dim, blurry or distorted vision
- Halos around lights
- Increased light sensitivity
- Muted colors
Who is at risk for cataracts?
Anyone can get cataracts. Some babies are born with them, due to infection during pregnancy or abnormal development of the eye. But most people who have cataracts are older than 40, although vision symptoms may not be noticeable until age 60 or older.
The following lifestyle and health factors can make it more likely for cataracts to develop:
- Being overweight
- Excessive alcohol use
- Eye injury or previous eye surgery
- Industrial exposure to infrared energy (bakers, glassblowers, steel workers, etc.)
- Long-term use of corticosteroid medications
How do doctors treat cataracts?
Surgery is the only treatment for cataracts. If you’re not ready for surgery, you can likely improve your vision with stronger glasses and contacts, using brighter lights to read and work on projects, and applying anti-glare coatings to your glasses and sunglasses. You and your eye doctor can work together to determine when it’s time for cataract surgery.
What are the different types of cataract surgery?
Cataract surgery involves removing the lens affected by the cataract, and replacing it with a clear artificial lens implant. There are two different approaches to cataract surgery:
- Phacoemulsification (phaco) is the more common cataract surgery approach. Your doctor makes a small incision in the front of the eye, then uses an ultrasound probe to break up the lens contents and remove it.
- Extracapsular surgery involves your doctor making a larger incision in the front of the eye, and removing the contents of the natural lens in one piece.
Your doctor implants an artificial lens after removing the cloudy lens. You have the option of a monofocal lens or a more expensive multifocal lens, which gives you near and distance vision in one lens. Multifocal lens implants are more expensive. Check with your health insurer regarding reimbursement before making a decision.
What are risks and side effects of cataract surgery?
Cataract surgery is generally considered a safe and effective surgery. Nine in 10 people have improved vision after the surgery. However, risks can include bleeding, infection, and problems with the lens implant. For a specific group of patients, cataract surgery may increase the risk of developing a retinal detachment, where the retina pulls away from its normal location. Retinal detachment can lead to permanent vision loss. Ask your doctor about your specific risks and how to prevent them.