Among conditions that affect the eyes, few have been as pervasive as cataracts. Cataracts, defined as opacities of the lens that can ultimately lead to partial or complete blindness, impact millions of people across the world: According to some studies, up to 15 million people have blindness that is linked to cataract formation. What are some of the details related to cataracts’ causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment?

While the exact pathogenic process causing cataracts remains a subject for research, there is quite a bit of literature available that discusses pertinent risk factors. One theory states a photo-oxidative process leads to the damage and subsequent opacity development. Commonly cited risk factors include old age, cigarette use, exposure to sunlight, diabetes, and alcohol consumption, among others. The effects of certain medications (e.g. Statins) is a subject for discussion.

The condition presents as a painless, gradual loss of vision. A patient may note that they can’t see in the dark as well as they used to. Additionally, they could be faced with challenges when focusing on fine print or attempts to read signs while driving. Color can appear faded, with a lack of richness that may have been perceived in the past. Of note, cataracts often affect both eyes, but the problems may start asymmetrically. This means that one eye (either the right or the left) may begin to experience symptoms prior to the other. An ophthalmologist who suspects cataracts based on a patient’s presenting symptoms can confirm the diagnosis with a fundoscopic exam.

Treatment is essential to prevent the onset of full-blown blindness. Generally speaking, the decision to pursue treatment (which entails surgery to remove the cataract and replace it with a new lens) is based on the needs of the patient. Once the cataract is interfering with their vision and function, it’s a good time to pursue the surgery.

Various techniques are commonly implemented and are considered relatively safe. The damaged lens is removed and subsequently replaced with a clear, artificial lens instead. The procedure can be performed in outpatient settings and hospitals alike. Medicare and private insurances often cover the costs of the surgery. In the days that follow, patients are advised to follow specific instructions while the eyes adjust (e.g. using eye drops, protecting the eyes, avoiding strenuous exercise for a period of time, etc.).