Cataracts are cloudy patches within the lens of the eye which cause blurry vision and can eventually result in complete loss of vision.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What are cataracts?

The lens is a transparent disc which sits behind the coloured part of your eye (iris). It adjusts to allow light entering your eye to be focused onto the back of your eye (retina). This results in clear, sharp vision.

Normally, the lens is clear but sometimes cells inside the lens ‘crystallise’ into cloudy patches. These are called cataracts. At first, they may appear as small blurry areas, but over time:

  • Your lens will begin to become more opaque
  • Less and less light will be able to reach the back of your eye
  • Your vision will be impaired

Cataracts are most common in people over 65, but they can begin earlier than this.

How to tell if you have cataracts

Cataracts develop slowly over many years so you may not notice them at first – you may just think your glasses are dirty, if you wear them. However, the first signs are:

As symptoms get worse over time, the impaired vision will eventually impact on everyday activities. Even if you wear glasses, you may find that driving and reading becomes increasingly difficult. Sometimes one eye is worse than the other and occasionally only one eye is affected.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for cataracts

If you think you have cataracts, go for an eye check with an optician who can refer you to an eye specialist for treatment, which is usually cataract surgery.

Cataracts are usually diagnosed with the following:

  • Visual acuity test
  • Slit-lamp examination
  • Retinal exam

Causes of cataracts

By far the most common cause of cataracts is ageing of the cells within the lens of the eye. One in three people over 65 have cataracts or have had cataracts removed by surgery, but sometimes people can get them in their forties or fifties.

Lifestyle factors, such as smoking and alcohol, can contribute, as well as a family history of cataracts.

Some medical conditions can also mean you’re more likely to develop cataracts. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • Eye injury
  • Certain medications
  • Previous eye surgery
  • Other eye conditions, such as retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma or uveitis
  • Severe short-sightedness (myopia)
  • Radiotherapy

Common treatments for cataracts

Cataracts can only be effectively treated with surgery.

In the early stages of cataracts it may help to wear glasses and avoid bright lights, but eventually surgery will be necessary to restore failing vision. You don’t have to wait for your eyesight to become really bad before you have surgery. For most people the sooner they have cataract surgery the better their quality of life and ability to continue everyday activities.