Diabetic retinopathy 

Introduction 

Diabetes and eyesight

Blood vessels in the retina of your eye can bleed, become leaky or grow haphazardly. This can prevent light being detected on the retina or even reaching your retina. If left untreated, it can damage your vision. In this video, an expert explains how diabetes can affect your vision and the possible treatments for it.

Media last reviewed: 22/11/2013

Next review due: 02/11/2015

Diabetes

Diabetes is a long-term condition, which is caused by too much glucose (sugar) in the blood. There are two types:

  • Type 1 diabetes – when your body doesn't produce any insulin, meaning that insulin injections are needed for the rest of your life. It often develops during the teenage years.
  • Type 2 diabetes (the most common type) – when your body doesn't produce enough insulin, or your body’s cells don't react to insulin. It usually affects people over 45 years old, especially those who are obese.

Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes. It occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the cells at the back of the eye (known as the retina). If it isn't treated, it can cause blindness.

It's important for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar levels. Everyone with diabetes who is 12 years old or over should have their eyes examined once a year for signs of damage (see below).

How diabetes can damage the retina

The retina is the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye. It converts light into electrical signals.

The signals are sent to the brain through the optic nerve and the brain interprets them to produce the images that you see.

To work effectively, the retina needs a constant supply of blood, which it receives through a network of tiny blood vessels.

Over time, a continuously high blood sugar level can cause the blood vessels to become blocked or to leak. This damages the retina and stops it from working.

Read more about the causes of diabetic retinopathy.

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy

During the initial stages, retinopathy does not cause any noticeable symptoms. You may not realise that your retina is damaged until the later stages, when your vision becomes affected.

Possible symptoms of late-stage retinopathy include:

  • shapes floating in your field of vision (floaters)  
  • blurred vision 
  • sudden blindness

If you have diabetes and start to notice problems with your vision, contact your GP or diabetes care team immediately.

Read more about the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy.

Screening for diabetic retinopathy

As retinopathy can cause sudden blindness, it needs to be identified and treated as soon as possible.

The NHS Diabetic Eye Screening Programme aims to reduce the risk of vision loss in people with diabetes. This is done by identifying retinopathy at an early stage and ensuring that treatment is given.

Everyone with diabetes who is 12 years of age or over is invited for screening once a year.

Read more about how diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed.

Treating diabetic retinopathy

Treatment for retinopathy will depend on the stage the condition has reached.

For example, if retinopathy is identified in its early stages, it can be treated by controlling your diabetes more effectively.

If you have more advanced retinopathy, you may need to have laser surgery or injection therapy to prevent further damage to your eyes.

Read more about treating diabetic retinopathy.

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

To reduce your risk of developing retinopathy, it is important to control your blood sugar level and keep your blood pressure as close to normal as possible.

Read more about preventing diabetic retinopathy.

Other steps that you can take to help prevent retinopathy include:

  • attending your annual screening appointment
  • informing your GP if you notice any changes to your vision (do not wait until your next screening appointment)
  • taking your medication as prescribed
  • losing weight (if you're overweight) and eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • exercising regularly 
  • giving up smoking
  • controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol levels

Page last reviewed: 02/04/2014

Next review due: 02/04/2016

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