Diabetes and your eyes


Diabetes can have a major effect on your eye health and greatly increase your risk of certain eye conditions. It is currently the leading cause of preventable sight loss in the UK and worryingly 50% of people with diabetes are undiagnosed.

But how does diabetes affect your eyes?

Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes blood glucose (sugar) levels to become too high. High blood glucose along with high blood pressure, which is more likely in those living with diabetes, can cause serious damage to your blood vessels – which are very important in the eyes as they supply blood to the light-sensitive retina. When these blood vessels are damaged, the retina cannot get the blood supply it needs, and so cannot work as it should. This leads to a condition called diabetic retinopathy. High blood glucose can also increase your risk of developing other eye conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma.

Three stages of diabetic retinopathy

There are three main stages of diabetic retinopathy which are graded by how serious the condition is.

Stage 1 – Background diabetic retinopathy

In the first stage, blood vessels in the retina are only very mildly affected. They may bulge slightly, leak blood or fluid but your vision will probably remain normal with no threat to your sight.

Stage 2 - Maculopathy

Overtime, if the condition becomes more severe, it can lead to maculopathy which is where the macula (an important area in the middle of the retina which controls central vision) is now affected. The main symptom at this stage is a gradual loss of central vision, although your peripheral vision (side vision) will be preserved.

Stage 3 – Proliferative diabetic retinopathy

As the eye condition progresses this can sometimes lead to blood vessels in the retina becoming blocked. The eye will try to repair itself by forming new blood vessels, although these vessels are weak and can easily bleed, causing scar tissue to form and can ultimately lead to retinal detachment. If bleeding and retinal detachment occurs this may cause a sudden and severe loss of vision. If untreated total loss of vision could occur with proliferative diabetic retinopathy.

How can it be treated?

Early treatment for diabetic retinopathy cannot be stressed enough. It is recommended that you have any eye test every year so that your optician can monitor any changes that might occur due to diabetes. You should not wait until your vision has deteriorated before you have any eye test. Even, if you don’t have diabetes a regular eye test can help pick up other health conditions, so it is important not to neglect the eyes and be regularly seen by an optician. If you or a family member are unable to attend your local optician store, OutsideClinic can visit you at home for all your eye care needs.

If caught early enough, diabetic retinopathy can be treated with laser treatment. This treatment is often effective in preventing further sight loss however, it aims to preserve existing sight – it will not make it better. Good control of diabetes may help slow the onset and progression of retinopathy.

What can you do to protect your eyesight if you are living with diabetes?

The good news is that sight loss from diabetes is preventable as long as you are doing all you can to protect your sight. Try these simple steps:

  • Get your eyes screen annually – Diabetic retinopathy can become quite advanced before you will notice it affecting your sight. Therefore, it is important that you go for regular eye screening appointments so that you can be diagnosed and treated in time. Everyone aged 12 years or over in the UK with diabetes is entitled to an NHS diabetes eye screening once a year. If you cannot attend a local optician for your regular checks, OutsideClinic can come and see you at home.
  • Know your blood glucose levels – If your blood sugar is consistently high, you face a higher risk of diabetic retinopathy and other eye conditions. Your healthcare team should help you set target blood sugar levels and show you how to check them at home. The closer you can keep to your target blood glucose levels, the lower your risk of developing problems with your sight.
  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control. If these are high, they can also damage or block the blood vessels in your eyes and damage your sight. Your GP should check these levels as part of your annual review.
  • Eating healthily can help to keep your blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control. Choose foods that are lower in calories, sugar, and saturated fat. Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, lean meats, fish and non-fat or low-fat dairy products in your diet.
  • Regular exercise can lower your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol which in return will help to protect again diabetic eye conditions.
  • Smoking damages your blood vessels, which combined with diabetes, greatly increases your risk or developing diabetic eye conditions. If you are a smoker, speak to your GP about help and support for quitting.


If you have Diabetes | Sight Research UK