Your vision might be something you take for granted until it starts to falter. When you can’t see clearly or comfortably, it can dramatically change how you view the world—literally.
More than 4 million Americans older than 40 are legally blind or have low vision, most of them as a result of an eye disease such as macular degeneration or cataracts. Many more Americans—potentially as many as 150 million—have refractive errors, such as nearsightedness or farsightedness, that can be corrected.
Fortunately, you can take steps to protect your vision. UNC Health optometrist Janna Lambson, OD, offers these tips.
1. Get regular, comprehensive eye exams.
A comprehensive eye exam can tell your eye doctor a lot about the health of your eyes. An optometrist or ophthalmologist can assess things like visual acuity (sharpness), depth perception, eye alignment, eye structure and eye movement.
During an exam, your eyes will be dilated to check for diseases like cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration, Dr. Lambson says. Your doctor will ask if you’re having any trouble with your vision, including while driving, reading or working.
Adults between the ages of 18 and 64 should get a comprehensive eye exam every two years, and those who are 65 and older should go every year. However, if you are experiencing vision problems, you may need to be seen more frequently.
Some underlying health conditions warrant annual exams, including diabetes, HIV and autoimmune conditions that can affect the eye such as Grave’s disease, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
For children, it’s best to start eye exams early. Dr. Lambson recommends that children with no known vision problems have one exam between 6 and 12 months of age, another exam between ages 3 and 5, and then start annual exams. This will help detect any vision problems or eye diseases like amblyopia, often called lazy eye. This common cause of vision loss in children should be treated as early as possible, while the child’s eyes are still developing.
“Children may not notice at all if one eye is not seeing as well as the other, but when we do an exam, we’ll be able to recognize the problem. That’s something we can treat while they are younger, but as they get older and the brain and eyes finish developing, it’s harder to treat,” Dr. Lambson says.
No matter your age, or your child’s, it’s important to visit your eye doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Decreased vision
- Draining (eye discharge) or redness of the eye
- Eye pain
- Double vision
- Floaters (tiny specks that appear to float before your eyes)
- Circles (halos) around lights
- Flashes of light
2. Take special care with contacts and glasses.
If you are wearing glasses or contacts, be sure to have your vision checked annually. If you wear glasses, you will need to be checked for prescription changes or frame adjustments. If you wear contact lenses, your doctor will check the prescription and fit and talk to you about preventing infection.
Contact lenses can lead to complications and infections if not handled properly. Dr. Lambson recommends keeping the lenses clean by using appropriate solution, taking them out at night before bed and disposing of them according to instructions. An eye doctor can help you make sure your routine is as healthy and sanitary as possible.
3. Know your family history.
Heredity can play an important role in the possibility of developing an eye disease. Glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts all have genetic components.
That’s why it’s important to know what specific eye diseases occur in your family. Once an eye doctor is aware of your family history, you can discuss ways to take appropriate preventive steps to minimize your risk. Ask your close relatives (parents and siblings) about their eye health and the eye health of other family members.
4. Wear eye protection.
According to the CDC, each day 2,000 U.S. workers suffer eye injuries that require medical treatment.
“We see a lot of people who work in an occupation like welding, doing something that involves small pieces of metal or debris flying around that get into the eye. So, if you’re doing anything dangerous like that, always use eye protection” such as safety glasses or goggles, Dr. Lambson says.
Safety glasses also are recommended for any sports that can feature flying elbows, like basketball and soccer, as well as sports that involve projectile objects, like badminton.
When you’re outside, wear sunglasses with UV protection to help shield your eyes from the sun’s harmful radiation. Extensive UV exposure can cause eye problems such as cataracts down the line, Dr. Lambson says.
5. Take breaks from your screens.
Most of us spend too much time looking at screens, and this leads to eye fatigue and strain. But there’s a simple technique to avoid it, Dr. Lambson says.
“Follow the 20-20-20 rule. We recommend that after 20 minutes of computer work, try to look at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This should be pretty helpful to reduce eye strain, blurriness, drying or tearing,” she says. That applies to other screens as well, including your phone, tablets and the TV.
If eye fatigue or eye strain persists, it could be a sign of an underlying condition, so it’s best to contact your eye doctor for an examination.
6. Look to your diet.
Vitamin deficiency can have a negative effect on your vision by increasing your risk of developing eye diseases such as cataracts or macular degeneration. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help keep your entire body healthy, including your eyes.
Look for foods containing vitamins A, C and E, such as dark leafy greens like spinach and kale. Snack on nuts or fortified cereals for the antioxidants. Also, try to include foods like salmon, tuna and halibut, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and good for your eyes.
If you have questions about your vision, talk to your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor, find one near you.