If you are diagnosed with diabetes (type 1 or 2), you may be aware that the condition can lead to changes in your eyes.

How does looking inside the eye help see diabetic changes?

The retina inside the eye is the only part of your body where we can see your blood vessels without peeling back skin to have a look. By checking the health of these vessels, it gives us a good idea of the health of the vessels elsewhere in the body that we can’t see so easily. Diabetes can cause changes to the blood vessel walls which makes them weaker and more likely to leak. These changes are called diabetic retinopathy and are graded depending on the severity of the condition. 

What happens if I get diabetic retinopathy?

Detecting diabetic changes in your eyes early on means that any problems can be treated sooner. Improving diabetic control and blood pressure can often make a significant improvement to diabetic retinopathy. In some cases, you may require laser treatment to your retina to seal the leaking blood vessels and prevent further damage. Occasionally injections into the eye are needed to help stop leaking blood vessels. Without treatment diabetic retinopathy can lead to sight loss. Therefore, if you notice any changes in your vision, you must book an appointment immediately. Even if you are not due for a check up or have been seen recently, it doesn’t mean that problems can’t develop quickly so always book an examination if you are concerned.

How common is diabetic retinopathy?

Only between 5 and 10 percent of all people with diabetes develop proliferative retinopathy; much more develop earlier stages of retinopathy. It is more common in people with type 1 diabetes than type 2. Sixty Percent of type 1 diabetics show some signs of proliferative disease after having diabetes for 30 years.

How can I prevent diabetic retinopathy?

Direct links between diabetic control, smoking, blood pressure and diabetic retinopathy are well known. If you are diabetic you should:

  • Maintain a healthy diet and weight
  • Keep a healthy blood sugar level. Poor diabetic control increases the risk of diabetic retinopathy as well as other systemic problems.
  • Keep up with you regular GP and diabetic nurse tests to keep a check on your diabetic control and blood pressure.
  • Take any medications as prescribed
  • Give up smoking


What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

During the early stages, diabetic retinopathy does not cause any noticeable symptoms until the later stages, when your vision becomes affected.

In later-stage retinopathy you may notice:

  • Floaters (debris floating around in your vision)
  • Blurred vision 
  • Sudden loss of vision

If you notice any of these symptoms, you must see your optometrist or GP immediately.

Does diabetes put me at greater risk of other eye conditions?

Yes, being diabetic increases your risk of other conditions such as glaucoma, and cataracts. Earlier detection leads to earlier treatment, a better prognosis and in some cases prevention of conditions developing at all.

Detailed examination of retinal blood vessels can often show up the signs of other systemic diseases.  High blood pressure can cause the blood vessels to become more tortuous over time – a little like a hose pipe that wiggles when you increase the pressure of the water. We can also identify hardening of the blood vessels by changes in their structure and colour. Sometimes we can also see blockages or thrombosis forming which can be an important sign of potential health problems such as stroke in the future.