If you have diabetes, you’re at risk of developing an eye condition known as diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that damages the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye (retina). Left undiagnosed and untreated, diabetic retinopathy can lead to sight loss, but with ongoing diabetes management and regular screening, you can protect your vision.

What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

In its early stages, diabetic retinopathy does not usually cause any noticeable symptoms – so you may not even know you have it.

What causes diabetic retinopathy?

The retina is the light-sensitive layer that covers the back of our eyes and needs a constant supply of blood to keep it healthy. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar levels start to damage these blood vessels. The damage happens in three main stages (background, preproliferative and proliferative) and it’s in the advanced stages that the blood can leak out and cause vision loss.

Learn more about causes

How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?

Everyone with type 1 and type 2 diabetes will be invited to a diabetic eye screening programme from the age of 12. This is usually a yearly check to assess the health of the retina and keep an eye out for any signs of its development.

Diabetic screening

If you’re diabetic, you should already be part of a screening programme, if you are not, your GP can arrange this for you. In certain parts of the country, we provide this regular screening service on behalf of the NHS.

You may need to have a further assessment if:

  • The photographs are not clear enough to give an accurate result
  • You have retinopathy that could affect your sight and follow-up treatment is needed
  • You have retinopathy that needs to be checked more than once a year
  • Other eye conditions are detected, such as glaucoma or cataracts

If your results show no retinopathy or background retinopathy, you will be invited back for another screening appointment a year later.

Remember

If you have sight problems in between screening appointments, such as sudden vision loss or deterioration in your vision, seek immediate advice by contacting your optician, GP or NHS 111. Do not wait until your next screening appointment.

Treatment and management of diabetic retinopathy

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy will depend on which stage of diabetic retinopathy is present and will only be necessary if your screening identifies that your vision is at risk.

Management in the meantime will usually involve maintaining a healthy lifestyle and keeping a close eye on your blood sugar levels.

For advanced stages of diabetic retinopathy, there are three main treatment options:

  • Laser treatment
  • Injections into the eye
  • Surgery

Learn more about treatment

Sir Steve Redgrave on diabetes

Sir Steve Redgrave CBE already won four Olympic gold medals in four consecutive games when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1997.

Learn more about diabetic retinopathy in our information hub