Cataracts are very common – the main cause of impaired vision worldwide. In England and Wales, it’s estimated that around 2.5 million people aged 65 or older have some degree of visual impairment caused by cataracts

What are the symptoms of cataracts?

  • Blurred, misty or cloudy vision
  • Bright lights may be dazzling or uncomfortable to look at
  • Colours may look faded or less clear with a yellow or brown tinge
  • You may find it more difficult to see in dim or very bright light
  • You may have double vision
  • You may see haloes (circles of light) around bright lights, such as car headlights or streetlights

Cataracts usually develop slowly over many years, so you may not notice symptoms at first. They often develop in both eyes, although each eye may be affected differently.

Cataracts are not painful and don’t make your eyes red or irritated. You’ll usually have blurred, cloudy or misty vision, or you may have small spots or patches where your vision is less clear.

What causes cataracts?

Cataracts occur when cloudy patches develop in the clear lens inside your eye, stopping light from reaching the back of the eye, and causing blurred or misty vision. In most people, cataracts simply develop as they age, with most cases developing after the age of 65. But there are several other factors that can increase your risk of developing cataracts, including:

  • A family history of cataracts
  • Regularly drinking excessive alcohol
  • Lifelong exposure of your eyes to UV light
  • Smoking
  • A poor diet lacking in vitamins
  • Taking steroid medication over a long time
  • Certain health conditions, such as diabetes

How are cataracts diagnosed?

Cataracts can usually be picked up during a normal eye test, which is why it’s important to have one regularly (once every two years or more frequently if your optometrist recommends it). During an eye exam, your optometrist will carry out a number of tests, like assessing how well you can see at varying distances, as well as having a good look at your overall eye health.

If they think you have cataracts, it’s likely that they will refer you on to an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) who can confirm the diagnosis and plan your treatment.

What is the treatment for cataracts?

If your cataracts are mild, stronger glasses and brighter reading lights may be helpful for some time. However, most cataracts get worse over time (often many years) so it’s likely you will eventually need treatment.

The only treatment that is proven to be effective for cataracts is surgery. This will usually be recommended if your loss of vision is affecting your daily activities, such as driving or reading. It’s a very common and successful procedure and involves taking out the cloudy lens and replacing it with a clear, artificial one. This artificial lens cannot cloud over in the same way, and so cataracts do not grow back after surgery.

Your treatment for cataracts may be a little different in light of COVID‑19.

What does cataract surgery involve?

Most cataract operations are done under local anaesthetic – so you’ll be awake, but your ophthalmologist will make sure you don’t feel the area around your eye. You will hear the ophthalmologist explaining what they’re doing, and you may see some vague movements around your eye.

The ophthalmologist will make a tiny cut in your eye to remove the cataract and will normally insert a plastic replacement lens so that you can see clearly. This will usually take around 15-45 minutes.

You will not normally need stitches, but your eye will be covered to protect it from knocks after the operation. You will be allowed to go home the same day, but you should have someone to drive you home and look after you for 24 hours after surgery.