When life gets busy, one of the first things to fall by the wayside is an eye exam. If nothing seems wrong, why go? But exams can tell you more about you or your child’s health than you might think.
“When you come in for an eye exam, one of the most important things we do is talk to you because we really want to get inside and see what’s going on,” says Dr. Steven Anderson, a medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee who specializes in ophthalmology. “That includes personal history and also family history, which plays a role in issues like glaucoma and macular degeneration.”
Regular exams also allow eye doctors to get to know patients, which may help them spot changes and problems early.
“Sometimes we can see things like high blood pressure that you may not know you have, or we can diagnose common childhood diseases,” says Dr. Anderson. “Picking up on things early can improve your eye health and also your overall health, and that’s our goal.”
Here are some problems your doctor might uncover during an eye exam:
About 80% of school lessons are presented visually, yet less than 25% of school-aged children are screened for vision problems. That can lead to misdiagnosed learning disabilities or other classroom problems. While vision screenings at school are helpful, they only identify kids who have serious or obvious problems, so it’s important for kids to see an ophthalmologist, too.
Vitamin A deficiency
Plaque or film on the surface of the eye may suggest a vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to night blindness or dry eye. It’s more common in people who’ve undergone weight-loss surgery, and it’s most serious in children. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children worldwide.
If you suffer from persistent or frequent headaches, they could be vision-related. An old prescription that’s too weak or too strong can cause headaches, as can an incorrect prescription. If you’ve recently gotten a new pair of glasses, an improper fit can cause headaches as well.
Your eyes are affected by UV rays the same way as your skin. About 5-7% of the population will get a freckle in the back of their eye, and those must be monitored for irregularities that could lead to cancer.
Thyroid eye disease
Thyroid eye disease occurs when the muscles and tissues behind the eye become inflamed, causing your eyes to push out and look very wide open. This can cause isolation and self-esteem problems, and irregular hormone levels can cause anxiousness and irritability.
Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol
During an eye exam, your doctor examines your retina, the lining at the back of your eye that turns light into images. (This is what doctors are doing when they dilate your pupils, which helps them look for changes in your blood vessels.) Changes in certain parts of your eye may indicate high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
If your blood sugar is too high for too long, you might contract diabetic retinopathy, a condition where the blood vessels in your eye weaken or become unable to repair themselves. This can cause blurry vision and extra pressure that could cause your retina to detach. It can also lead to conditions that could make you more prone to blindness, including:
Glaucoma is a deterioration of your eye’s optic nerve, which transmits images to your brain. It is often hereditary and can cause partial or total vision loss within a few years. Most people who have glaucoma don’t have symptoms, which is why it’s key for your doctor to diagnose it early.
Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness that can cause flu-like symptoms and may attack the tissues in the heart and nervous system. Lyme disease is hard to diagnose because symptoms can mimic other diseases and people don’t always know they’ve been bitten. Because the inflammation it causes throughout the body is often more detectable in the eye, an exam can uncover it.
Macular degeneration is a deterioration of your vision that happens with age. It has no cure, but it can be treated with vitamins, therapy, and medications, so it’s important to get diagnosed. See your doctor if you’ve experienced a drop in vision quality; if straight lines appear distorted; if you see dark, blurry or white areas in the middle of your vision; or if you experience changes in your perception of color.
A cataract is a clouding of the lens in your eye, which impairs your vision. Cataracts can be surgically removed, which means the sooner you’re diagnosed, the sooner you can consider treatment.
“Today we have so much technology and expertise at our disposal that we can offer our patients all kinds of options — but only if we see them!” says Dr. Anderson.
Here are general suggestions for eye exams:
Children should have exams:
- At 6 months
- Between ages 3-5
- And again before first grade at age 5 or 6, after which they should have annual exams through age 18.
Children who are experiencing vision problems should be checked more frequently.
- If you’re under 40, have relatively good vision and aren’t having problems, it’s probably safe to go to the eye doctor every 2 years.
- If you’re 40 or older, you should get your eyes checked every 1 to 2 years.
- If you haven’t had your eyes checked in more than 2 years, make an appointment. While you’re there, ask your doctor how frequently you should come back.