A cataract is one of the most common eye disorders that causes a cloudy spot over your eye. It affects millions of people around the world. The condition can cause your vision to decline as it progresses, so it’s important to seek advice from an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) when you first notice symptoms.
Watch this video to learn more about what a cataract is:
What does a cataract look like?
In the early stages, you might not notice it and it may not be visible. Or, you may see an opaque or almost-white area anywhere over your eye.
In the later stages, it may look like a milky or amber film covering most of your eye. We call this a mature cataract. At this stage, your cataract will be visible in the mirror and to others.
However, cataracts are a regular part of ageing and are very treatable.
What are the first signs of cataracts?
The earliest sign is cloudy, dim, or blurred vision. It might seem as if you are looking through frosted glass. You may struggle to read, need a bright light for reading or other activities, and have reduced night vision. During the earliest stages, you might not notice any differences.
Ophthalmologists can often identify the issue long before you experience symptoms. For this reason, we recommend regular eye tests, especially for people aged 40 and over.
With age-related cataracts, most people’s symptoms worsen over time. These can include:
- Halo effects around lights
- Colours appear faded or yellow
- Finding bright light and glare uncomfortable
- Prolonged double vision in one eye or both
- Often need to change glasses or contact lens prescription
Your eyes may also appear darker, which is more common with advanced cataracts. It’s common for both eyes to be affected, but they may not develop simultaneously or to the same extent.
Risk factors for cataracts
As you age, your risk of cataracts increases. Your risk may also be higher if:
- You’ve had previous eye surgery
- A family history of cataracts
- Spending a lot of time in the sun
- Eye injury, inflammation, or eye diseases
- Medical issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure
- Regular radiation exposure from X-rays or cancer treatments
- Taking medicines like corticosteroids or statins for a long time
- Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and obesity
To an extent, you can manage and prevent cataracts by with some lifestyle changes.
You may be able to delay the formation of cataracts by quitting smoking, drinking less, wearing sunglasses in the sun, and eating a healthy diet. There are plenty of foods that research suggests may improve your eye health, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains and leafy greens.
Types of cataract
There are four common types. The differences are in their appearance and how they progress.
Congenital cataracts may be present from birth or develop in childhood. They are usually hereditary but may occur from infection or trauma during a mother’s pregnancy. We also call these early-onset cataracts.
Cortical cataracts typically start at the outer edges of the lens and appear as pale streaks or patches. These streaks can block light from passing through the lens as they move toward the centre.
Nuclear cataracts appear in the centre of the lens, causing near-sightedness. With time, your lens turns yellow or brown, affecting your colour perception.
Posterior subcapsular cataracts are small, opaque areas that form at the back of the lens, directly in the path of light. If you have this type, you may experience glare around lights at night, problems with reading vision and light sensitivity.
As we get older, changes occur in the lens of our eyes, which may lead to cataracts. Proteins in the lens of your eyes clump together, causing light to scatter when passing through the lens instead of focusing on the retina.
The retina helps us see as it turns the light that enters our eyes into electrical signals. These signals travel to the brain to create the images we see.
Regular eye exams mean we can look for early signs of cataracts, which will help us monitor and treat your condition.
We can do a series of tests to look for signs of and diagnose cataracts, including:
- A visual acuity test – an eye chart with letters that decrease in size
- Slit lamp exam – allowing us to view the structure of your eye
- Retinal exam – this involves using eye drops to dilate your pupils
- Applanation tonometry – to measure fluid pressure in your eye
During testing, we will look at your eye health and vision quality. We will also discuss your medical and relevant family history to determine your risk of cataracts.
You cannot accurately test yourself for cataracts, but you can decide whether to see a professional after learning the symptoms of cataracts. Reading the risk factors for cataracts may also help your decision. You can find these further up this page.
Ultimately, we recommend booking an eye test if you experience a change in vision or new symptoms.
You can get new prescription glasses or contact lenses to assist your vision in the early stages. If your eyesight is more seriously impaired, we recommend surgery, such as lens replacement surgery. We can only fully treat a cataract with surgery.
Surgery involves replacing your lens – the one with the cataract – with a synthetic lens implant (IOL) which stays in your eyes for life. It won’t be visible to you or anyone around you.
Cataract surgery options include:
- Complex cataract surgery for people with existing health problems or other eye conditions
With private cataract surgery, you can usually opt for an ‘accommodating’ or ‘multifocal’ lens. These enable you to change focus between distant and near objects. Advanced technology lenses can also reduce or eliminate your need for glasses and contact lenses.
You’re more likely to experience complications if you have existing health problems or other eye conditions. These include macular degeneration or glaucoma. If you have underlying illnesses, you may want to consider treatments for those first. Our specialist will assess your needs and preferences before we discuss your treatment options.
Book an appointment
If you notice any changes in your vision, book an appointment with one of our eye specialists to get tested for cataracts. We will provide a full assessment of your eyes and vision.
We also offer a second opinion service. If you have sought help but believe a problem was missed, we can help.