More than 3 million people in the U.S. are living with glaucoma. Yet many more go undiagnosed.
As common as glaucoma is, you might not realize that you’re at risk — or know what you can do to prevent vision loss from this stealthy eye disease.
What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma isn’t a single illness. It’s a group of eye conditions that affect your optic nerve, which sends visual info from your eye to your brain. Most often, glaucoma happens when the internal pressure in your eyeball rises above normal, usually because of fluid buildup.
People with glaucoma can lose their peripheral vision, have patchy eyesight, and, in serious cases, become blind. In fact, glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the United States, after macular degeneration.
There are many types of glaucoma. Two of the more common types are:
- Open-angle glaucoma: Also called chronic glaucoma, this type accounts for about 90 percent of glaucoma cases. It happens when fluid in your eye can’t drain properly over time. Increased pressure from fluid buildup damages the optic nerve, slowly causing blank patches in your field of vision.
- Acute angle-closure glaucoma: Also called acute glaucoma, primary angle-closure glaucoma or narrow-angle glaucoma, this type occurs much less frequently than chronic glaucoma, but can harm your vision much faster. It happens when the pressure in your eye rises rapidly, causing your iris to block fluid from draining. Attacks can be minor or severe. Severe angle-closure glaucoma attacks need immediate treatment.
What are the symptoms of glaucoma?
Chronic glaucoma symptoms can be tough to pinpoint. In fact, the CDC estimates that about half of the people in America with open-angle glaucoma don’t know it because there aren’t obvious warning signs.
Increased eye pressure usually isn’t painful, and vision loss associated with chronic glaucoma is gradual. It may affect your vision so slowly that you don’t notice. You might even compensate for your loss of peripheral vision without realizing it—by tilting your head or unconsciously relying on your other eye for clearer vision.
Acute glaucoma symptoms are more intense. If you have an acute attack, you might experience severe eye pain, headaches and nausea, have blurry vision or see haloes or rainbow-like rings around lights.
Who’s at risk for glaucoma?
Chronic glaucoma affects nearly 3 million Americans, according to the National Eye Institute. Anyone can get it, but certain people are more at risk.
You’re also more likely to develop glaucoma if:
- You’re older than 60
- A member of your family has it
- You have a chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure
- You’re extremely nearsighted
What is the treatment for glaucoma?
Glaucoma often can be treated with medication given as eye drops or as a pill. If your vision doesn’t improve or stabilize, however, your doctor might recommend other options. These could include laser treatments or eye surgery called trabeculectomy to lower the pressure in your eye.
Researchers are also looking into whether high-tech contacts could be used to monitor eye pressure and more easily tailor glaucoma treatment for each patient.
How can I prevent glaucoma?
For most people, glaucoma prevention can be as simple as going to the eye doctor for your yearly exam. While you can’t stop glaucoma from happening altogether, it’s important to have regular screenings because catching the condition early can prevent or slow future vision loss.
Typically, you’ll have an “air-puff” test to measure the internal pressure of your eye, and a dilated eye exam to look for signs of damage to your optic nerve. If your eye doctor suspects glaucoma, she may do more tests to confirm your diagnosis.
When should I see a doctor?
If you have symptoms of acute glaucoma, see a doctor right away. For chronic glaucoma, yearly eye exams are the best way to look for signs of the disease. If your doctor notices irregular pressure in your eye, she’ll work with you on a treatment plan to manage it.
Your doctor can also help you figure out if contacts are still an option with glaucoma treatment. If you’re using medicated eye drops, you might be able to still wear contacts; if you need eye surgery, contact lenses might not be the best choice.
If it’s been a while since you’ve had your eyes checked, Sightbox can help you connect with an eye doctor and set up an exam.