January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month. US Family Health Plan would like to encourage all members to take some time this month to learn about the prevention, signs, symptoms, and risk factors associated with glaucoma.
Perhaps the most important thing to learn about glaucoma is that, with early detection and treatment, a person can protect her or himself from serious and irreversible vision loss. As the leading cause of preventable blindness in the United States, as much as 40% of vision can be lost without a person noticing. This is why regular screening is so important.
Glaucoma is actually a group of diseases – each of which can damage the optic nerve, located in the eye. This can lead to loss of vision, or, in severe cases, complete blindness. Once a person loses her or his sight due to glaucoma, there is no way of getting it back. Although glaucoma can affect people of all ages, the most common forms primarily affect people who are middle-aged or older. Some people face an increased risk of glaucoma. People at increased risk for glaucoma include:
- People over the age of 60, particularly those who are Mexican-American.
- African-Americans over the age of 40.
- People with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hypothyroidism.
- People with a family history of glaucoma.
- Those with elevated internal eye pressure (intraocular pressure).
- Individuals with other eye conditions (e.g., severe eye injuries, tumors, retinal detachment, etc.).
- Long-term users of corticosteroid medications (especially eye drops).
List adapted from Mayo Clinic.
There are several types of glaucoma. The two most common are:
- Primary open-angle glaucoma. Vision loss is slow and progressive over a long period of time. Usually, because the loss is so gradual, a person will not notice his or her sight worsening. When they finally do notice, the disease is in the advanced stages, leaving little chance for full recovery. The exact cause of this condition is unknown.
- Angle-closure glaucoma. This condition can appear suddenly and is usually painful. Vision loss can progress quickly. Since the condition is painful, people often seek treatment early, preventing major vision loss.
The signs and symptoms for these two types of glaucoma are different. Primary open-angle glaucoma has virtually no symptoms, making regular screening very important.
Primary open-angle glaucoma signs/symptoms:
- No symptoms at first.
- Sufferers may notice a gradual loss of vision, usually in both eyes.
- At very advanced stages, tunnel vision may occur.
- Advanced glaucoma can cause irreversible blindness.
Acute-closure glaucoma signs/symptoms:
- Symptoms could come and go at first, or consistently become worse.
- Severe pain in the eyes.
- Nausea and/or vomiting.
- Sudden onset of vision problems.
- Blurry vision.
- Halos around lights.
- Reddening of the eyes.
- Swollen feeling of the eyes.
Early detection and treatment is key for preventing vision loss! In order to catch and diagnose glaucoma early, a complete eye exam is needed. As part of this examination, your eye doctor may give you eye drops to widen (dilate) your pupils. Make sure to have a complete eye exam before the age of 40, or sooner if you are at increased risk for glaucoma or other eye problems. In addition, it’s recommended that everyone have their eyes checked through dilated pupils every two years by an eye care professional. If you fall into any of the abovementioned high-risk groups, speak to your health care provider about a more frequent recommended screening schedule.