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Macular Degeneration vs. Cataracts: A Guide

Medically Reviewed By Leela Raju, MD

Macular degeneration is an eye condition that causes central vision loss due to damage affecting the macula, which sits at the retina’s center. Cataracts occur when the lens in the front of the eye becomes clouded, keeping light from reaching the retina. These conditions affect different eye parts but can both affect your vision. There is currently no cure for macular degeneration, but cataracts are reversible with surgery to replace the eye’s lens.

Read on to learn more about macular degeneration and cataracts.

Causes

A person squinting into sunlight
Kobus Louw/Getty Images

Macular degeneration and cataracts involve several eye parts but may have some similar contributing factors.

Macular degeneration

Macular degeneration occurs when the macula, the retina’s area responsible for central vision, experiences damage or deterioration. It often relates Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source to the aging process, so experts commonly refer to it as “age-related macular degeneration.”

Along with the aging process, several other factors may contribute Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source to macular degeneration, including:

  • a family history of the condition
  • tobacco use
  • sunlight exposure
  • reduced intake of certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and E

Learn 8 things to know about macular degeneration.

Cataracts

Cataracts primarily occur Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source due to the natural aging process, clouding the eye’s lens over time. They may also be inheritable Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source in some cases. For example, a baby may have cataracts if the birthing parent develops an infection like rubella in early pregnancy.

Other risk factors for cataracts include:

  • sunlight or chemical exposure
  • tobacco or alcohol use
  • medical conditions, such as diabetes or myotonic dystrophy
  • medications, including steroids
  • previous eye surgery
  • nutritional deficiencies

Symptoms

Though macular degeneration and cataracts may share some similar symptoms, there are also some key differences.

Macular degeneration

Macular degeneration symptoms can vary, depending on the stage and the type you have. Some people may not experience noticeable symptoms early on.

When they do occur, the symptoms can include Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source :

  • distorted or blurry vision
  • difficulty reading or recognizing faces
  • dark areas in your vision’s center
  • decreased color perception
  • straight lines appearing wavy or crooked

Learn more about the two types of macular degeneration.

Cataracts

Similar to macular degeneration, people with cataracts may not notice early symptoms. As cataracts worsen, symptoms may include Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source :

  • cloudy or blurry vision
  • difficulty seeing clearly, especially at night
  • sensitivity to glare
  • colors appearing faded
  • double vision
  • frequent changes in eyeglass or contact lens prescription

If you experience any of these symptoms, contact a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Diagnosis

A comprehensive eye examination is typically the first step for macular degeneration and cataracts. During this examination, an eye doctor reviews your medical history and asks about symptoms you may be experiencing. 

They may perform various eye tests to examine your eyes, such as:

  • a dilated eye exam, when your doctor gives you eye drops to widen your pupils
  • a visual acuity test, which evaluates how well you can see
  • optical coherence tomography, an imaging exam that helps your doctor examine your retina
  • fluorescein angiography, a procedure that allows your doctor to evaluate the retina’s blood vessels and blood flow

These tests help assess the severity of the conditions and determine the most appropriate treatment plan. Other tests, like blood tests or imaging scans of other body parts, may also help Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source rule out other conditions.

Check out our cataracts appointment guide to learn more about questions your doctor may ask or that you may want to ask at your eye appointment.

Treatments

Treatment plans for macular degeneration and cataracts are different.

Macular degeneration

Treatments for macular degeneration vary, depending on the condition type and severity. There is currently no cure for the condition, but your doctor may recommend Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source certain treatments or changes to slow the progression or manage the symptoms, including:

  • Lifestyle changes: These may include trying to avoid smoking, getting regular physical activity, and taking vitamin supplements.
  • Medications: Your doctor may prescribe anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) medications to slow the retina’s atypical blood vessel growth, reducing fluid leakage and inflammation.
  • Medical procedures: In advanced cases of macular degeneration with significant vision loss or complications, procedures like photodynamic therapy may be beneficial. This treatment method combines medication injections and laser treatment.

Learn more about how doctors treat macular degeneration in different stages.

Cataracts

Cataracts can only be definitively treatable with surgery. During cataract surgery, a surgeon replaces the clouded natural lens with an artificial intraocular lens to help restore Trusted Source National Eye Institute Governmental authority Go to source clear vision.

You may still require glasses or contact lenses after surgery.

Learn more about what happens during cataract surgery.

Summary

Macular degeneration and cataracts are eye conditions that can negatively affect your vision. If you have symptoms like blurry or distorted vision, a reduced ability to see colors, or double vision, contact a healthcare professional for a diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: Leela Raju, MD
Last Review Date: 2023 Dec 12
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