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Diabetes and eye problems (diabetic retinopathy)

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Diabetes is the leading cause of preventable sight loss in the UK.

Some people with diabetes develop serious complications with their eyes, called diabetic retinopathy. If you don’t get this treated properly, it can lead to sight loss. 

This is a frightening fact. Losing your sight could affect your career, your family life and your independence.
    
That’s why it’s vital that you know why you’re at risk of eye problems and what you can do to prevent them.

And if eye complications do start to develop, they can nearly always be treated to avoid long-term problems – as long as they’re spotted and diagnosed in time. So you need to know the facts and what to look out for.

What is diabetic retinopathy and what causes it?

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease that people living with diabetes are more at risk of getting. If your blood sugar levels and blood pressure are consistently high, you can seriously damage your blood vessels. 

And there are lots of important blood vessels in your eyes. These vessels help supply blood to the seeing part of the eye (called the retina). When these blood vessels are damaged, they can get blocked, leak or grow randomly. This means the retina can’t get the blood it needs and so can’t work properly. Which means you won’t be able to see properly.

There are lots of things you can do to keep your blood sugars and your blood pressure in your target range. And the more you do this, the lower your risk of developing serious problems with your eyes. 

Keeping your eyes healthy for as long as possible is in your control, and we’ve got all the facts and advice to help you do it.

 

You can prevent sight loss and we're here to help. We've got information on the steps you can take to avoid eye problems and how to manage eye problems you have now, to stop them getting worse.

Types of retinopathy 

There are four main types of retinopathy.

When you get your eye screening results, you should see a letter and a number which tells you the type of retinopathy you may have. For example, an ‘R’ stands for retinopathy and the number tells you how much damage, if any, has been done. These letters and number may be different depending on where you live in the UK, so speak to your healthcare team if you're not sure. Here are the four types:

  • Background retinopathy (sometimes called background changes) – this is stage one. It means your eye sight isn’t affected yet but you need to prevent the problem getting worse. You might hear this called R1 when you get your eye screening results.

  • Non-proliferative retinopathy – stage two. The damage is more serious and you’ll need to get your eyes screened more often to check for any changes. You might hear this called R2.

  • Proliferative retinopathy – stage three. You’re now at a very high risk of losing your sight and you’ll be offered treatment. You might hear this called R3.

  • Maculopathy – this is a different type of retinopathy that affects the middle of the eye, which may mean that you won’t be able to read or drive. You might hear this called M0 if there's no maculopathy found in your eyes, or M1 if fluid is starting to build-up in your eye and is affecting your sight.

Background and non-proliferative retinopathy are known as early stage retinopathy and there are lots of things you can do yourself to prevent it from getting worse. 

Proliferative retinopathy and maculopathy are more advanced. Your healthcare team will tell you more about these – we have more information on how more advanced eye problems can be treated.

Cataracts and glaucoma

Cataracts and glaucoma are other types of eye problems that people with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing. A cataract is when your vision gets cloudy and glaucoma is when fluid builds up in the eye. This can all be down to high blood sugar levels. 

Keeping on top of your blood sugars and having regular eye screening are both crucial to preventing or delaying a cataracts or glaucoma.

These aren’t types of retinopathy but you’ll usually need surgery if they get too advanced. 

How to prevent serious eye damage 

It’s very unlikely that someone with diabetes will suddenly wake up blind – the damage is gradual. Because of this, it’s possible for most people to have treatment to slow down or prevent eye problems from getting worse. 

That’s why going to your eye screening appointments is so vital. But it’s also about what you can do yourself in between appointments. We’re here to help you keep on top of it all and stay in the know.

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