Cataracts affect millions of people each year, including more than half of all Americans age 60 and older. A cataract is the clouding of the eye's natural lens. Cloudiness develops as a result of a buildup of protein in the lens. Cataracts can occur in either one eye or both eyes. If left untreated, cataracts will worsen over time and interfere with normal activities, such as reading or driving. Night vision usually is most affected. In their early stages, individuals with cataracts are helped by using stronger lighting, but as they develop, most require surgery.

Risk Factors for Cataracts

In addition to aging, other factors can increase the risk of developing cataracts, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Family history of cataracts
  • High blood pressure
  • Previous eye injury or surgery
  • Prolonged use of corticosteroid medications

Rarely, infants are born with cataracts. These congenital cataracts may be the result of an infection the mother contracted during pregnancy, such as rubella (German measles) or may occur in combination with some other birth defect. Occasionally, infants develop cataracts shortly after birth.

Diagnosis of Cataracts

Several tests may be performed in order to diagnose a cataract. These tests include:

  • Retinal examination under pupil dilation
  • Visual acuity test
  • Slit-lamp examination
  • Tonometry to test intraocular pressure (IOP)

In combination, such tests help the ophthalmologist determine whether a patient has cataracts or if the visual problems have some other cause. They also assist the doctor in evaluating the degree of visual impairment and whether surgery should be recommended.

Symptoms of Cataracts

Patients with cataracts often do not experience any symptoms when the condition first develops. Cataracts will continue to progress with no pain, although patients may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Blurred, hazy or double vision in one eye
  • Decreased color perception
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Poor night vision
  • Perception of halos around lights
  • Yellow- tinged vision
  • Frequent changes in corrective lens prescriptions

Treatment of Cataracts

Early cataracts can sometimes be treated with nonsurgical methods such as:

  • New corrective lens prescriptions
  • Anti-glare sunglasses
  • Magnifying lenses
  • Brighter lighting

If the cataracts begin to interfere with reading ability, work, night driving or other daily activities, cataract surgery may be recommended. If cataracts are in both eyes, surgery will be performed on one eye at a time, usually 4 to 8 weeks apart. Cataract surgery is the most commonly performed surgical procedure in the United States.

Prevention of Cataracts

Although cataracts cannot be prevented, their development can sometimes be delayed by:

  • Wearing wide-brimmed hats to block sunlight
  • Wearing sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays
  • Not smoking; not drinking excessively
  • Eating a diet high in antioxidants

Although left untreated, cataracts can lead to serious visual impairment, in most cases they can be effectively treated with surgery once they become intrusive in everyday life.

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