The eyes have it - top tips for healthy eyes
Do we really need a National Eye Health Week? Surely we know how to look after our eyes? Apparently not. About two million people in the UK are living with significant sight loss, and about 50% of this sight loss is avoidable.
The single commonest cause of sight loss in adults is age-related macular degeneration (ARMD). It gets more common with age, and can sometimes run in families. There are two main kinds - 'dry' ARMD, which is the more common kind, but which takes years to cause serious eyesight problems; and 'wet' ARMD, which accounts for about one in 10 cases but which can cause much worse impairment and which progresses much more quickly. There is currently no specific treatment for dry ARMD, but wet ARMD can be treated with regular injections with a medicine called anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF), photodynamic therapy or laser treatment to destroy fragile blood vessels in the eye which can cause problems.
Retinal vein occlusion causes similar symptoms to ARMD, although it usually affects only one eye at any time. These include painless loss of vision, blurred vision or distorted vision (often starting with straight lines looking wavy). There are about 33,000 cases a year in the UK, and urgent treatment with anti-VEGF or steroid injections, or with laser treatment, can greatly improve the outlook.
Diabetic macular oedema is the most severe complication of diabetic retinopathy - damage to the layer of 'seeing cells' on the retina (the inner lining of your eyeball). As with wet ARMD and retinal vein occlusion, damage to the back of the eye results in fluid building up. This leads to a lack of blood supply to the retina, and the body releases chemicals linked to inflammation. These include prostaglandins and VEGF. VEGF promotes growth of new blood vessels, but these are very fragile and can bleed easily, causing more damage to eyesight. Laser or anti-VEGF treatment can help here too
While there have been significant advances in treatment for all these conditions in recent years, early treatment is crucial. Any sudden loss of vision, blurred vision or wavy lines in your visual fields should be treated as a medical emergency. So should an acutely painful red eye, which can be a sign of acute glaucoma; or flashing lights and new or worsening 'floaters' in your visual field, which could be a warning of retinal detachment.
But even better than getting early treatment is preventing eye problems in the first place. Simple but important tips include:
- Wear sunglasses every time you're in bright sunlight. Excess sun can increase your risk of cataracts and ARMD
- Take regular breaks if you work all day on a computer. Use the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look up from your screen and focus on something about 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds
- Get your blood pressure checked, and take your doctor's advice (and if necessary medicine) to control high blood pressure and cholesterol. Both of these increase your risk of retinal vein occlusion and possibly ARMD
- Stop smoking. Smoking, like excess sun, makes you more prone to cataracts and related macular degeneration, as well as retinal vein occlusion
- Wear safety goggles if you're working with any hazardous materials, and always if you're welding
- Know your family history. If glaucoma runs in your family (parents, siblings or children) you're eligible for free eye checks on the NHS from the age of 40
- Get your eyes checked every two years by a registered optician (more often if they advise it)
- If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar controlled to reduce the chance of diabetic retinopathy and make sure you're part of an annual retinopathy screening programme.