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Medically reviewed by Sharon Copeland on 11 March 2021
What are cataracts?
Cataracts occur when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy or misty, similar to the effect of looking through frosted glass. The lens sits just behind the pupil and is usually transparent, allowing light to pass through to the retina.
Cataracts are the primary cause of vision loss for people over 40 and the leading cause of blindness in the world.
The lens of the eye is composed of water and protein; the protein arranged naturally, keeps the lens clear. Cataracts cause the protein to clump together and produce a cloudy appearance in a small part of the lens. Over time, this can grow larger, making it more difficult to see.
Cataracts usually appear in both eyes; however, they may not necessarily develop at the same time.
Who do cataracts mostly affect?
Most cataracts take place in adults. When we begin to age, the tissue that makes the lens of your eyes will start to change. As we grow old, our lenses can start to become frosted, limiting our field of vision and the ability to see.
While it's mainly adults who are affected by cataracts, babies and children can also be susceptible to the condition known as childhood cataracts which are relatively rare.
Congenital cataracts are present when a baby is born or shortly afterwards, while developmental cataracts emerge in older babies and children. They can also cause a squint or 'wobbling eyes', where the eyes point in different directions. Surgery can usually fix this condition without too many complications.
Babies must be checked for signs of cataracts as early as possible. Checking for cataracts in babies can reduce the risk of complications from long-term vision problems.
What is the first signs of cataracts?
Those in the early stages of cataracts may not notice changes in their vision. For this reason, regular eye exams are essential. An ophthalmologist will be able to detect cataracts right away. Nevertheless, here are some of the first signs of cataracts:
- Cloudy Vision-the appearance of cloudy spots in your field of vision is one of the symptoms of early-stage cataracts. The spots may start small but will worsen over time and interfere with your daily life activities.
- Difficulty seeing at night- those with early-stage cataracts will find that their nighttime vision worsens over time.
- Increased sensitivity to light- bright lights will become particularly disruptive for those with early-stage cataracts and can cause sudden headaches.
- Halos and glare-as cataracts develop, light passing through the lens gets diffracted. The result is halos around bright lights and glare in your field of vision.
Types of cataracts
Different types of cataracts include:
- Nuclear cataracts - this type of cataracts affects the centre of the lens and can cause nearsightedness at first. However, over time, the lens turns yellow and causes your vision to become cloudier.
- Cortical cataracts- this type of cataracts affects the edge of the lens. It starts as white streaks on the outer part of the lens cortex. As cataracts develop the streaks extend to the centre of the lens, interfering with the light passing through it.
- Posterior subcapsular cataracts- this usually begins as a small opaque area near the back of the lens beneath the lens capsule. It can interfere with reading and may cause you to see halos around lights.
- Congenital cataracts- some people are born with these cataracts. Causes can include infections (chickenpox and rubella) passed on from mothers while babies are still in the womb, genetic faults and eye injuries picked up after birth.
The removal of these cataracts are immediate, however, they don't always affect vision.
Can cataracts cause blindness?
As cataracts worsen over time, they can cause complete vision loss. Nevertheless, while many people assume that this is permanent, blindness caused by cataracts can be cured.
Cataract surgery should take place before low vision, or legal blindness happens and will ensure the best results
Is a cataract curable?
Cataracts are curable with cataract surgery and an intraocular lens implant. During cataract surgery, they remove the cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial lens.
This type of eye surgery is a typical operation in the UK and can happen in a day. It has a very high success rate in terms of treating eye conditions and improving eyesight.
It usually takes around 4-6 weeks to recover from this operation.
How to treat cataracts?
In some minor cases of cataracts, you'll be able to counter the effects by wearing a higher prescription of contact lenses or glasses.
However, cataracts typically worsen as time goes on, meaning that eventually surgery is required. This surgery is known as cataract removal and can happen in a day.
If you're suffering from cataracts, it's imperative to visit your GP or optician to monitor the progress and determine what level of treatment is required.
How can you prevent cataracts from getting worse?
You can lower the risks of cataracts by adopting specific lifestyle measures and adopting healthy habits. Medicine and eye drops have not proven to prevent cataracts or stop them from worsening. While there is no concrete evidence on how to prevent cataracts, here are some steps that may reduce your risk:
- Go for regular eye examinations
- Avoid smoking
- Wear sunglasses with UV protection
- Follow a healthy diet, rich in vitamins and nutrients
- Manage health problems that may cause you to develop cataracts
Cataracts and driving
As long as you meet the visual standards for driving and aren't affected by glare as a result of cataracts, you don't need to inform DVLA if you have or have had cataracts.
Quick links:A guide to congenital cataracts
Do I need an eye test?
Driving and Vision Guide