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Cataract: What You Should Know
By the National Eye Institute

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Eye Diseases and Disorders Series - LPR Staff Project - December 27, 2004

(This article is for information purposes only. Always consult your doctor for medical advice.)

Click here to jump to a list of Cataract related links.

The following is an abridgement of an article that was provided courtesy of the National Eye Institute. A complete, printed copy of this article, as well as a other free publications offered by the NEI, can be ordered via their NEI Publications Catalog.



Cataract: What You Should Know
By the National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health

This booklet is for people with cataract and their families and friends. It provides information about age-related cataract, the most common form of cataract. This booklet answers questions about the causes and symptoms of the disorder and discusses diagnosis and types of treatment.

The National Eye Institute (NEI) conducts and supports research that leads to sight-saving treatments and plays a key role in reducing visual impairment and blindness. The NEI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

What is a cataract?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging. Cataracts are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.

A cataract can occur in either or both eyes. It cannot spread from one eye to the other.

What is the lens?

The lens is a clear part of the eye that helps to focus light, or an image, on the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

In a normal eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina. Once it reaches the retina, light is changed into nerve signals that are sent to the brain.

The lens must be clear for the retina to receive a sharp image. If the lens is cloudy from a cataract, the image you see will be blurred.

How do cataracts develop?

Age-related cataracts develop in two ways:
  1. Clumps of protein reduce the sharpness of the image reaching the retina.

    The lens consists mostly of water and protein. When the protein clumps up, it clouds the lens and reduces the light that reaches the retina. The clouding may become severe enough to cause blurred vision. Most age-related cataracts develop from protein clumpings.

    When a cataract is small, the cloudiness affects only a small part of the lens. You may not notice any changes in your vision. Cataracts tend to "grow" slowly, so vision gets worse gradually. Over time, the cloudy area in the lens may get larger, and the cataract may increase in size. Seeing may become more difficult. Your vision may get duller or blurrier.

  2. The clear lens slowly changes to a yellowish/brownish color, adding a brownish tint to vision.

    As the clear lens slowly colors with age, your vision gradually may acquire a brownish shade. At first, the amount of tinting may be small and may not cause a vision problem. Over time, increased tinting may make it more difficult to read and perform other routine activities. This gradual change in the amount of tinting does not affect the sharpness of the image transmitted to the retina.

    If you have advanced lens discoloration, you may not be able to identify blues and purples. You may be wearing what you believe to be a pair of black socks, only to find out from friends that you are wearing purple socks.

Who is at risk for cataract?

The risk of cataract increases as you get older. Other risk factors for cataract include: What are the symptoms of a cataract?

The most common symptoms of a cataract are: These symptoms also can be a sign of other eye problems. If you have any of these symptoms, check with your eye care professional.

Are there other types of cataract?

Yes. Although most cataracts are related to aging, there are other types of cataract: How is a cataract detected?

Cataract is detected through a comprehensive eye exam that includes: Your eye care professional also may do other tests to learn more about the structure and health of your eye.

How is a cataract treated?

The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses. If these measures do not help, surgery is the only effective treatment. Surgery involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens.

A cataract needs to be removed only when vision loss interferes with your everyday activities, such as driving, reading, or watching TV. You and your eye care professional can make this decision together. Once you understand the benefits and risks of surgery, you can make an informed decision about whether cataract surgery is right for you. In most cases, delaying cataract surgery will not cause long-term damage to your eye or make the surgery more difficult. You do not have to rush into surgery.

Sometimes a cataract should be removed even if it does not cause problems with your vision. For example, a cataract should be removed if it prevents examination or treatment of another eye problem, such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.

If you choose surgery, your eye care professional may refer you to a specialist to remove the cataract.

If you have cataracts in both eyes that require surgery, the surgery will be performed on each eye at separate times, usually four to eight weeks apart.

Is cataract surgery effective?

Cataract removal is one of the most common operations performed in the United States. It also is one of the safest and most effective types of surgery. In about 90 percent of cases, people who have cataract surgery have better vision afterward.

Are there different types of cataract surgery?

There are two types of cataract surgery. Your doctor can explain the differences and help determine which is better for you: After the natural lens has been removed, it often is replaced by an artificial lens, called an intraocular lens (IOL). An IOL is a clear, plastic lens that requires no care and becomes a permanent part of your eye. Light is focused clearly by the IOL onto the retina, improving your vision. You will not feel or see the new lens.

Some people cannot have an IOL. They may have another eye disease or have problems during surgery. For these patients, a soft contact lens, or glasses that provide high magnification, may be suggested.

What are the risks of cataract surgery?

As with any surgery, cataract surgery poses risks, such as infection and bleeding. Before cataract surgery, your doctor may ask you to temporarily stop taking certain medications that increase the risk of bleeding during surgery. After surgery, you must keep your eye clean, wash your hands before touching your eye, and use the prescribed medications to help minimize the risk of infection. Serious infection can result in loss of vision.

Cataract surgery slightly increases your risk of retinal detachment. Other eye disorders, such as high myopia (nearsightedness), can further increase your risk of retinal detachment after cataract surgery. One sign of a retinal detachment is a sudden increase in flashes or floaters. Floaters are little "cobwebs" or specks that seem to float about in your field of vision. If you notice a sudden increase in floaters or flashes, see an eye care professional immediately. A retinal detachment is a medical emergency. If necessary, go to an emergency service or hospital. Your eye must be examined by an eye surgeon as soon as possible. A retinal detachment causes no pain. Early treatment for retinal detachment often can prevent permanent loss of vision. The longer the retina stays detached, the less likely you will regain good vision once you are treated. Even if you are treated promptly, some vision may be lost.

Talk to your eye care professional about these risks. Make sure cataract surgery is right for you.

What if I have other eye conditions and need cataract surgery?

Many people who need cataract surgery also have other eye conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration or glaucoma. If you have other eye conditions in addition to cataract, talk with your doctor. Learn about the risks, benefits, alternatives, and expected results of cataract surgery.

What happens before surgery?

A week or two before surgery, your doctor will do some tests. These tests may include measuring the curve of the cornea and the size and shape of your eye. This information helps your doctor choose the right type of IOL.

You may be asked not to eat or drink anything 12 hours before your surgery.

What happens during surgery?

At the hospital or eye clinic, drops will be put into your eye to dilate the pupil. The area around your eye will be washed and cleansed.

The operation usually lasts less than one hour and is almost painless. Many people choose to stay awake during surgery. Others may need to be put to sleep for a short time. If you are awake, you will have an anesthetic to numb the nerves in and around your eye.

After the operation, a patch may be placed over your eye. You will rest for a while. Your medical team will watch for any problems, such as bleeding. Most people who have cataract surgery can go home the same day. You will need someone to drive you home.

What happens after surgery?

Itching and mild discomfort are normal after cataract surgery. Some fluid discharge is also common. Your eye may be sensitive to light and touch. If you have discomfort, your doctor can suggest treatment. After one or two days, moderate discomfort should disappear.

For a few days after surgery, your doctor may ask you to use eyedrops to help healing and decrease the risk of infection. Ask your doctor about how to use your eyedrops, how often to use them, and what effects they can have. You will need to wear an eye shield or eyeglasses to help protect your eye. Avoid rubbing or pressing on your eye.

When you are home, try not to bend from the waist to pick up objects on the floor. Do not lift any heavy objects. You can walk, climb stairs, and do light household chores.

In most cases, healing will be complete within eight weeks. Your doctor will schedule exams to check on your progress.

Can problems develop after surgery?

Problems after surgery are rare, but they can occur. These problems can include infection, bleeding, inflammation (pain, redness, swelling), loss of vision, double vision, and high or low eye pressure. With prompt medical attention, these problems usually can be treated successfully.

Sometimes the eye tissue that encloses the IOL becomes cloudy and may blur your vision. This condition is called an after-cataract. An after-cataract can develop months or years after cataract surgery.

An after-cataract is treated with a laser. Your doctor uses a laser to make a tiny hole in the eye tissue behind the lens to let light pass through. This outpatient procedure is called a YAG laser capsulotomy. It is painless and rarely results in increased eye pressure or other eye problems. As a precaution, your doctor may give you eyedrops to lower your eye pressure before or after the procedure.

When will my vision be normal again?

You can return quickly to many everyday activities, but your vision may be blurry. The healing eye needs time to adjust so that it can focus properly with the other eye, especially if the other eye has a cataract. Ask your doctor when you can resume driving.

If you received an IOL, you may notice that colors are very bright. The IOL is clear, unlike your natural lens that may have had a yellowish/brownish tint. Within a few months after receiving an IOL, you will become used to improved color vision. Also, when your eye heals, you may need new glasses or contact lenses.

What can I do if I already have lost some vision from cataract?

If you have lost some sight from cataract or cataract surgery, ask your eye care professional about low vision services and devices that may help you make the most of your remaining vision. Ask for a referral to a specialist in low vision. Many community organizations and agencies offer information about low vision counseling, training, and other special services for people with visual impairments. A nearby school of medicine or optometry may provide low vision services.

What research is being done?

The National Eye Institute is conducting and supporting a number of studies focusing on factors associated with the development of age-related cataract. These studies include: What can I do to protect my vision?

Wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight may help to delay cataract. If you smoke, stop. Researchers also believe good nutrition can help reduce the risk of age-related cataract. They recommend eating green leafy vegetables, fruit, and other foods with antioxidants.

If you are age 60 or older, you should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. In addition to cataract, your eye care professional can check for signs of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other vision disorders. Early treatment for many eye diseases may save your sight.

What should I ask my eye care professional?

You can protect yourself against vision loss by working in partnership with your eye care professional. Ask questions and get the information you need to take care of yourself and your family.

What are some questions to ask?

About my eye disease or disorder... About my treatment... About my tests... Other suggestions Today, patients take an active role in their health care. Be an active patient about your eye care.

Resource List

The following organizations may be able to provide additional information on Cataracts:

National Eye Institute (NEI)
31 Center Drive MSC 2510
Bethesda, MD 20892-2510
(301) 496-5248
http://www.nei.nih.gov
Conducts and supports research on eye diseases and vision disorders. Offers free publications for the general public and patients.

National Marfan Foundation
22 Manhasset Avenue
Port Washington, NY 11050
1-800-862-7326
(516) 883-8712
http://www.marfan.org
Disseminates information about Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissues in which dislocated lenses, cataract, and retinal detachment are ocular symptoms. Provides a communication network for patients and their family members. Supports and encourages research. Publishes The Marfan Syndrome, a comprehensive booklet on the disease, and A Guide for Eye Care Professionals.

For more information about IOLs, contact:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Office of Consumer Affairs
Parklawn Building (HFE-88)
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857
1-888-463-6332
www.fda.gov

For more information about low vision services and programs, you may wish to contact:

American Academy of Ophthalmology
P.O. Box 7424
San Francisco, CA 94120-7424
(415) 561-8500
http://www.aao.org
Represents board-certified ophthalmologists in the United States. Offers public information materials and clinical education programs in a variety of formats. Offers a Find a Doctor service on their website to help people locate local board-certified ophthalmologists.

American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
New York, NY 10001-2006
1-800-232-5463
(212) 502-7600
afbinfo@afb.net
http://www.afb.org
Serves as a one-stop information and referral resource for people who are blind or visually impaired, the people who work with them, and the general public. Conducts a wide variety of programs to support independent living, literacy, employment, and access to technology. Publishes professional materials for blindness and low vision and Talking Books. Offers consultation services to eye care, rehabilitation, and education professionals. Provides referrals to low vision centers. Advocates for legislative change.

American Optometric Association
243 N. Lindbergh Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63141
(314) 991-4100
http://www.aoanet.org
Represents optometrists in the United States. Provides brochures on eye problems for the lay public and professional materials on eye care delivery. Offers a Find a Doctor service on their website to help people locate optometrists.

Council of Citizens with Low Vision International
1-800-733-2258
Serves as an advocacy group for the visually impaired. Provides information on low vision technology. Offers scholarship. Publishes the CCLV News.

Lighthouse International
111 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022-1202
1-800-334-5497
1-800-829-0500
(212) 821-9200
(212) 821-9713 (TDD)
info@lighthouse.org
http://www.lighthouse.org
Serves as a national clearinghouse for information on vision impairment across the life span including specific services for children and seniors. Offers a comprehensive selection of educational products, large print materials, talking products, and related specialty items for people with visual impairments. Offers reading and library services, employment and recreation resources, and technology centers.

National Association for Visually Handicapped
22 W. 21st Street, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010-6493
(212) 889-3141
http://www.navh.org
Serves as a clearinghouse for information about all services available to the partially-sighted from public and private sources. Conducts self-help groups. Provides information on large print books, textbooks, and educational tools.


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