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Diabetic Eye Disease: What You Need To Know

Diabetic eye disease is one of the most common complications that arise from diabetes. While diabetic eye disease can't be cured, it can be managed with prompt detection and treatment.

Since 95% of vision loss from diabetic eye disease is preventable if caught early enough, early detection is key to protecting your sight.

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The Link Between Diabetes and Eye Disease

Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when one has continuously high blood sugar levels, often leading to a variety of health complications. Most individuals are aware of the health risks unmanaged diabetes can present - each year, diabetes kills more Americans than AIDS and breast cancer combined. However, your vision can also be seriously affected. In fact, diabetic eye disease is the #1 cause of vision loss in the United States, and those with diabetes are 25 times more likely to lose their vision.

What is Diabetic Eye Disease?

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye conditions that affect those with diabetes. They include:

Diabetic Retinopathy: High blood sugar levels are associated with damage to the tiny blood vessels in the retina, leading to diabetic retinopathy. The retina sits at the back of your eye and has light-sensitive cells called rods and cones. When you look at an object, the front of your eye contains a lens that "projects" an image onto the retina. Rods and cones then send electrical signals to the brain along the optic nerve. The brain uses these signals to interpret what you are seeing. Diabetic retinopathy may cause the blood vessels in the retina to leak fluid or bleed, distorting vision. In its most advanced stage, new blood vessels may begin to form, leading to scarring and cell loss in the retina. Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of vision loss among those with diabetes and the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness among working-age adults. Between 40-45% of those diagnosed with diabetes already have some degree of diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic Macular Edema: DME is a complication of diabetic retinopathy caused by fluid accumulation in the macula. The macula is the central portion of the retina that is involved in straight-on vision used in seeing faces clearly, reading, and driving. Vision loss from DME can progress over a period of months and over time make it impossible to focus clearly. It affects about 10% of those with diabetes and will develop in about 50% of those with diabetic retinopathy.

Unmanaged diabetes has been linked to an increased risk for other eye conditions, such as cataracts and glaucoma.

What are the Symptoms of Diabetic Eye Disease?

The early stages of diabetic retinopathy usually have no symptoms - the disease often progresses unnoticed until it affects vision. Bleeding from abnormal retinal blood vessels can cause the appearance of “floating” spots. In the case of DME, you may notice blurriness in your vision. For most patients, by the time they notice vision problems it is very late in the disease.

A lack of early-stage symptoms is the primary reason that early detection is so critical to preventing vision loss from diabetic retinopathy.


depiction of diabetic retinopathy

How is Diabetic Eye Disease Treated?

Laser Treatment: A beam of high-intensity light is directed into the eye to seal off leaking blood vessels and prevent additional blood and fluid from leaking into the vitreous, which is the jelly-like substance that fills the inside of the back of the eye. The doctor will administer eye drops to dilate the pupil and numb the eye before treatment. 

Injections: In certain cases, injections may be administered into the eye to treat broken blood vessels. After treatment, these vessels disappear within 1-2 days, but this is not a cure. These vessels  come back once the effect of the drug wears off. Because the half-life is about four to six weeks, this form of treatment requires frequent injections.

How Do I Prevent Diabetic Eye Disease?

Early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by 95 percent. Because diabetic retinopathy often lacks early symptoms, those with diabetes should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Those who have diabetic retinopathy may need eye exams more frequently. Managing diabetic eye disease and diabetes will lower your risk for diabetic eye disease and can be done the following ways:

  • Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
  • Keeping a healthy lifestyle that includes exercising regularly, not smoking and following a healthy diet.
  • Getting annual diabetic eye exams.
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