If you’re in your 60s or 70s, you can expect to find yourself developing cataracts. In fact, at this age, it’s not uncommon to have already undergone cataract surgery. Since developing cataracts is just a normal and anticipated part of human ageing, cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures in the world. However, recognising the signs of a cataract isn’t always as straightforward as you might think. Keep reading to learn about the signs of a cataract.
Signs of a Cataract
A cataract is a haze or opacity of the lens inside the eye. In a young, healthy eye, this lens is optically transparent so that light can pass through for sharp vision. However, as we age, it gradually loses its clarity, and at some point, we call it a cataract.
One of the signs of a cataract is exactly as you’d expect – your sight becomes hazy and less clear. You might describe the experience as filmy, cloudy, blurry, or like it feels as if you’re constantly looking through a dirty window or smudged glasses. An early cataract tends not to result in any noticeable deterioration of your clarity of sight. Quite often the first clue that you’re developing cataracts is just from your optometrist mentioning it during a routine eye exam.
Other signs of a cataract can include:
- You need better lighting for reading. Does small print feel like it’s getting smaller? Or does it seem like your eyes get particularly fatigued after trying to read by the light of your dim bedside lamp? One of the effects of a cataract is that your contrast sensitivity deteriorates. This means that your ability to discern fainter details against a background is declining. Bright lighting can help to improve the contrast and make text appear bolder against the page. Other activities you might find becoming more difficult in poor ambient lighting include sewing or navigating uneven ground.
- You avoid driving at night. While deteriorating contrast vision can influence your confidence when driving at night, increasing glare sensitivity from your developing cataracts will also make things more difficult. The opacities in the lens scatter light particles as they enter the eye, which we then perceive as glare. You may find this increased glare sensitivity makes you particularly uncomfortable when you’re faced with oncoming car headlights on the road. Furthermore, in low light, our pupils dilate, which increases the sensation of glare. Other situations where you may notice yourself squinting include when reading neon or LED signage at night, or when you’re reading off a digital device. The backlit nature of a screen that has been turned up too brightly can also induce glare.
- Your glasses or contact lens prescription is shifting rapidly. As a cataract develops, it can change the refractive index of the lens, which alters your prescription. Although some small shift to a prescription is natural even without the presence of cataracts, advancing cataracts can cause your script to change significantly and in a relatively short period of time. This shift can be in any direction – you could become more short-sighted or more long-sighted. You may even develop astigmatism. In many situations, you can improve your vision by simply updating your glasses. However, some people find that their prescription changes so often and so quickly that it becomes too expensive to keep pace with the frequent updates. In this case, cataract surgery is often the better option.
You can expect these cataract signs to develop very slowly over time. The gradual progression makes it difficult to notice these changes to your vision.
It’s important to note that the signs of a normal age-related cataract never include pain or sudden loss of vision. There is never a redness or inflammation associated with a typical cataract, nor discharge from the eye. The exception to this is in the rare case of a hypermature cataract – one that has been left unattended for too long.
Uncommonly, a hypermature cataract may suddenly rupture, resulting in an inflammatory reaction inside the eye known as uveitis. Hypermature cataracts are very rarely seen in the Australian healthcare system; they are more commonly found in developing countries due to poor access to eye care and cataract surgery.
In the early days of your cataract development, it’s usually not necessary to undergo cataract surgery. Your optometrist or ophthalmologist will be able to assess your vision and discuss the impact of cataracts on your daily tasks with you. For mild to moderate cataracts, you may be satisfied with making some simple modifications to make your activities easier, rather than going for cataract surgery straightaway. For example, using task lighting for reading, updating your glasses, or reducing the brightness of your computer screen.
Once you feel that the cataracts are becoming more bothersome, you can ask to be referred for cataract surgery. Cataract surgery is a safe and effective day procedure. It involves the extraction of your cataract, replacing it with a clear implant. This implant is typically calculated to correct your eye’s prescription, meaning you can reduce your dependency on glasses.
The health of the lens is always assessed during your routine eye tests. Your eye care professional will be able to tell you if you’re developing a cataract.
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Note: Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Before proceeding, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner.