Diabetic retinopathy

How it develops

Diabetes causes high levels of sugar in the blood, which can damage blood vessels and nerves in the retina, located in the back of the eye. The retina detects light and sends messages to the brain. Once its blood vessels and nerves are damaged, vision usually gets worse.

illustration showing parts of the eye

How diabetic retinopathy affects vision

A person with diabetes may not notice any problems with vision in the early stage of diabetic retinopathy. Eventually though, vision can be blurred or even lost from swelling of the retina or bleeding from the growth of new abnormal blood vessels. The affected person may notice blurred vision or dark spots (floaters) in their vision.

Who is at risk?

All people with diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision impairment and blindness among working-age adults. Individuals with diabetes are at risk for diabetic retinopathy and other diabetic eye diseases.

Steps you can take

Individuals with diabetes can prevent or delay vision loss by

  • Controlling the level of blood sugar
  • Eating healthy and losing weight if needed
  • Staying physically active
  • Quitting smoking
  • Taking medications as prescribed

Earlier treatment can mean better vision

People with diabetes should be screened for diabetic retinopathy once a year even if they think their vision is good. Thousands of people lose vision or go blind each year because they are not being screened regularly. The new treatments are very good but the best results are when treatment is started early, before the retina is damaged permanently. 

Treatment options for diabetic retinopathy

  • Medicine injected through a fine needle into the eye to control abnormal blood vessels or swelling of the retina
  • Laser surgery
  • Vitrectomy, a surgical removal of the vitreous gel and scar tissue in front of the retina

People with diabetes may also benefit from new glasses or even magnifying lenses to help them read.

Get screened once a year

Early detection of diabetic retinopathy allows for earlier treatment and saves vision.

Women with diabetes who become pregnant should make sure they have been screened for diabetic retinopathy. 

Last reviewed: 
June 2018

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