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15 Signs You Should See an Eye Doctor

Regular eye exams form a critical part of keeping your vision healthy. For children, there’s good reason to keep it frequent, especially from ages 6 – 19; they need a proper pediatric eye exam annually to monitor for healthy eye development.

Once your eyes have grown to full size by adulthood, you might be okay with fewer eye care visits, assuming you show no symptoms of eye disease. Adults should undergo an eye exam at least once every 2 years.

But your eyes can undergo changes in that amount of time. Moreover, there’s increased risk for eye disease, especially among seniors with every passing year in later adulthood. Cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma pose increased risks—so seniors benefit from an exam keyed to detecting health risks for the 65+ crowd.

But there are times you should consider visiting your eye doctor whether you’re on schedule or not. Look out for signs that you’ve got any eye emergency on your hands; if so, you’ll need to head to an optometrist who can help, or a hospital emergency room. You may want to keep an eye out for the following symptoms, some of which might indicate an eye emergency.

black and white photo of woman experiencing painful eye disease symptoms glowing red

Foreign Objects & Substances

A foreign object is something stuck in your eye, and common examples include dirt, rock, plastic, chemical substances and more. It’s a medical emergency, and you’ll want to visit an emergency room as soon as possible. For smaller solids or liquid substances, you should flush your eye under cool tap water for at least 15 minutes. Damage can accumulate quickly if you leave it in or blink.

For larger solids that may have lodged into your eye, you should follow a similar process. While it might be tempting to try removing it with your fingers or tweezers, it’s imperative to leave that to a doctor.

For any kind of foreign object, you should never rub your eyes to cope with the pain and discomfort. You’ll need an eye doctor who can provide emergency eye care, or a hospital emergency room.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition that can affect your body in various ways, and it can even lead to blindness when it’s not managed correctly. It boils down to the way your body turns food into sugars, called glucose.

When a diabetic patient’s body can’t keep up with the food to energy conversion process, sugars can float through the bloodstream. This effect can lead to diabetic eye diseases, notably diabetic retinopathy, and diabetic macular edema. Patients with diabetes are also at much increased risk for non-diabetic eye diseases like glaucoma and cataracts.

As mentioned for at-risk groups, whether child or adult, eye exams are essential to detection of diabetic eye diseases. For that reason, we have diabetic eye exams, tailored to finding signs of glucose in the bloodstream—which might affect the sensitive parts of your eyes.

Not Knowing the Difference Between Symptoms & Causes

Sometimes eye health, as with all health, can get complicated. To simplify things, doctors like to figure out what causes what, so they can do a better job in treatment. Conditions or causes cause effects, as you can probably guess. Symptoms are those effects.

Knowing that you have diabetes or sensing a foreign object in your eye means you have a pre-existing condition or a sudden physical trauma. These situations can serve as causes of damaging effects or complications in your eye.

But sometimes you might notice a symptom without knowing its cause. In that case, you might want to schedule an eye exam appropriate to your age group sooner or later, because a diagnosis can give you a chance at getting healthy and preserving your vision.

Blurry Vision & Problems Focusing

Blurry vision along with problems focusing are a sign your vision has changed. It might be a matter of a changing refractive error, like nearsightedness or farsightedness.  Sometimes these errors don’t threaten your vision and can be fixed with eyewear and an up-to-date prescription. But it could also be a sign of a deeper problem.

If your blurry vision comes with difficulties seeing while night driving, if blurriness seems to switch on and off at times, or it’s limited to one eye, it could be a developing cataract or a type of glaucoma. Ask your eye doctor, and explain any other symptoms alongside it.

Dry & Itchy Eyes

Dry or itchy eyes are a symptom which could result from many different diseases. Allergies might be the cause, but sometimes a condition called dry eye can be the culprit. Dry eye depends on many factors but simply put, it boils down to imbalanced or low levels of tears in your eyes.

Dry eye can be treated with specialized techniques that can target the parts of your eye anatomy in need of a boost, so that you can find relief even if you can’t benefit from a cure.

Pain

Another symptom with multiple causes is pain in your eye. It’s best to get to the bottom of eye pain quickly, and make sure it’s not an eye emergency. One type of eye pain can be sudden and severe, stemming from acute angle-closure glaucoma.

Oftentimes this type of pain will be accompanied by nausea, blurred vision, apparent halos. This type of glaucoma is fast acting, so eye care intervention must be even faster to preserve your vision. Don’t hesitate reporting this kind of eye pain as an eye emergency.

If it’s a dull, fleeting, or infrequent pain, it could still be worth scheduling an eye exam ahead of schedule.

Duller pain, along with redness, or a gritty feeling in your eye (despite no apparent foreign objects) might indicate bacterial conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. If you’re not sure whether your eye pain is an eye emergency or not, it might be better to err on the side of caution and call in.

Eye Infections

Along with dull pain, swelling, itchy, red discoloration, and possible discharge can all indicate an infection in the cells on or near the surface of your eye.

Conjunctivitis can sometimes issue from allergies, but in case of infections, go by the term pink eye. In this case, bacteria or viruses infect the cells on the conjunctiva. As a reaction, inflammation can lead to a colored discharge coming from your eyes.

If the infection is viral, the best treatment is the same as a cold: vitamins, bedrest, and time. Viruses need time to die off as your immune system gets better at fighting the particular strain attacking your cells.

But if the infection is bacterial, it can get out of control quickly despite your immune system’s best efforts. Antibiotics or topical eye creams and ointments can tackle bacterial conjunctivitis with the proper prescription, so don’t hesitate to see an eye doctor if you think you might have it.  

Sensitivity to Light 

Light sensitivity could be a symptom of an eye infection, but it could also be an indication of deeper problems. Several eye diseases might manifest sensitivity to light, so please check with your eye doctor sooner rather than later.

Eye Fatigue

Eye fatigue is becoming more common as people carry digital devices more and more. That’s not the only factor that can cause our eyes to feel tired though. Dry, moving air can also lead to it. If you can remove the source of dry moving air you can relieve some of the eye fatigue. You’ll also want to relieve your eyes from the effects of computer vision syndrome with consistent use of the 20/20/20 rule. While working with or enjoying the use of a digital screen:

  • Every 20 minutes 
  • Relax and shift your gaze to something 20 feet away
  • And keep it there for 20 seconds

If that doesn’t do the trick, you may need a diagnosis from an eye doctor to isolate the cause of your eye fatigue. Eye fatigue can also come from uncorrected refractive errors, and it might open the gate for other complications without help from an optometrist.

Flashes, Floaters, & Spots in Your Vision

Flashes and floaters—which might take the appearance of transiting spots clouding your vision—might not be a problem. Many people with completely healthy vision get them from time to time. In particular, floaters are caused by shadows. Little bits of protein and small sheddings of your eye’s vitreous are the mysterious figures that cast those shadows.

With age, the clear gel-like substance called vitreous can slowly turn liquid, and the gel can become a slightly chunky fluid. Proteins can start floating across your field of vision as a result of the slow and gentle changes to your eye.

But if the onset of floaters is sudden, and high in volume, you might have an eye emergency on your hands—especially if they’re accompanied by strange flashes of light coming from nowhere. If you experience these symptoms, you should proceed to an emergency room right away.

Halos

closeup of a woman with cataracts against white background

Halos surround light sources, even in broad daylight might be a sign of astigmatism or presbyopia. These refractive errors usually involve a misshapen cornea. But halos around light sources can also signal cataracts in some cases. Cataracts often come with other noticeable symptoms, however.

Inability to See at Night

Night blindness affects many of our patients, and it can be a natural part of aging. But combined with a lot of other noticeable symptoms, difficulties with seeing objects and obstacles at night could indicate cataracts.

Double Vision

Double vision also goes by the name diplopia, and it can occur in one or both eyes. Monocular diplopia (double vision in 1 of your eyes) could be caused by  astigmatism, dry eye, or keratoconus. Light focuses images into the back of your eye in several stages, so double vision might come from misshapen cornea or lenses.

Double vision might also be a sign of cataracts, so it’s important you get a diagnosis for this symptom sooner rather than later.

Chronic Headaches

Chronic headaches that come and go often can come from vision problems. Uncorrected refractive errors, like nearsightedness or farsightedness, can give patients headaches along with eye strain. The effect can be similar with undercorrected refractive errors too.

Cataracts can disrupt clear vision, so a natural reaction tends to be squinting to focus on images in your field of vision. But the stress from doing so can generate frequent headaches. Cataracts usually come with a lot of other recognizable symptoms.

Problems with Near or Distant Vision

Sometimes our patients notice they can’t quite a book or brochure unless they hold the text far away at arm’s length. Other times, they might struggle to read something on a board or projector when someone is presenting. This is a sign of a common  refractive error, which can be corrected by eyewear like glasses or fitted contact lenses. Eye fatigue can result if you go too long with uncorrected near or far vision.

Along with other noticeable symptoms, cataracts could also cause problems with near or distant vision, which can require cataracts surgery in extreme cases.

When you have unexplained problems with near or distance vision as a diabetes patient, it might be a symptom of diabetic eye diseases, so you should see an eye doctor in short order.

You Haven’t had an Eye Exam in a While

Cataracts have a lot of noticeable symptoms, and they can come from a variety of causes, even nearsightedness. Some eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration or certain types of glaucoma have barely any symptoms, so it can escape your notice. That’s why we stress annual eye exams for children and adults, even if you don’t notice any symptoms, and even if you don’t have preexisting conditions that could serve as causes.

If you stumble upon any of these symptoms, or something in your eye doesn’t seem quite right, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Please call us in case of an eye emergency or request an appointment if you have enough time.

Written by Sharokh Kapadia

Dr. Kapadia originally hails from St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brock University. He then went on to graduate with honors from the Michigan College of Optometry in 1998, where he specialized in contact lenses. After he graduated, Dr. Kapadia completed a one-year residency at the renowned Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, Florida, where he focused on ocular diseases.

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