What is a cataract?

Cataracts are formed when the clear lens inside your eye becomes cloudy or misty. This is a gradual process that usually happens as we get older and it does not hurt.  The early stages of a cataract do not necessarily affect your sight.

Cataracts normally develop very slowly. At first, the changes they make to your sight may be difficult to notice, but as they get worse you’ll start to notice symptoms such as:

Eventually, almost all people with cataracts will find that their sight has turned misty or cloudy, and things have become difficult to see all of the time. Cataracts sometimes develop so slowly that you might not notice the changes in your vision, but when you have your regular eye examination your optometrist may detect them.

What causes cataracts?

The main cause is ageing and most people will eventually develop a cataract in both eyes, although one eye may be affected before the other.  Cataracts affect men and women equally.

Younger people can develop cataracts if they have an injury to the eye.  Some medical conditions such as diabetes, or taking some sorts of medication such as steroids, may also cause cataracts. A very small number of babies are born with a cataract.

How will cataracts affect my vision?

If you have cataracts you may notice that your vision is less clear and distinct.  Car headlights and streetlights can become dazzling, and you may experience difficulty moving from shade to sunlit areas.  Colours may look different too, and become faded or yellowed.  If you are long-sighted, you may even notice that you need your glasses less than you did before you had the cataract!

It may be that the cataract is causing a change to your long or short sight and your sight can be improved simply by changing your glasses.  If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment to see your optometrist.

Can I drive if I have cataracts?

If you have cataracts, you may continue to drive as long as you still meet the vision standards for driving.  Your optometrist will be able to advise you about this. You do not need to tell the DVLA about your cataract unless you cannot meet the vision standards for driving.  For more information visit the DVLA website here

Can I prevent cataracts?

There are various supplements on the market which claim to help slow the progression of cataracts and some eye drops have been marketed as a treatment for cataracts. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that any of these can prevent or treat cataracts. 

Smoking and prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light increase your risk of developing cataracts. Stopping smoking and wearing good-quality sunglasses may provide some protection against cataracts, as well as other eye conditions.

Drinking a lot of alcohol and being overweight are also risk factors for developing cataracts, so you should try to maintain a healthy weight and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. You cannot make cataracts worse by using your eyes too much.

Treating cataracts

If your cataract is affecting your day-to-day life (for example, driving, reading or cooking) and your optometrist cannot improve your vision enough by changing your glasses, you can ask them to refer you to an ophthalmologist for surgery.  The surgery involves removing the cloudy lens (the cataract) and replacing it with a clear plastic one.  If you have cataracts in both eyes, surgery will normally be carried out on one eye at a time.

There is not any medicine or drops that can remove cataracts, surgery is the only way to treat them.

You will be given eye drops to use for the first few weeks after your operation. You should avoid heavy lifting and strenuous exercise immediately after the operation, but you can carry on with most other activities around the home as normal. Nearly all of your vision will return within two days of surgery and many people are able to return to their usual daily routine 24 hours after the operation.

You should avoid eye make-up, swimming, and getting soapy water in your eyes when you wash your hair for two weeks after the operation. If you go out on a windy day, you may feel safer wearing sunglasses to
prevent grit getting in your eye. Ask your ophthalmologist about when you can go back to work.

Your eyesight will settle down in a few days or weeks. After cataract surgery most people need to wear glasses for either distance, near vision or both. If you wore glasses before the operation, you will probably find that they will need changing after the operation, so you will need to see your optometrist again for an eye examination a few weeks after the surgery.

November 2021