When it comes to glaucoma, “awareness” is a very important word! Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the nerve of the eye and can lead to vision loss—it’s the second leading cause of blindness, and our risk goes up as we grow older.
Glaucoma happens when the normal fluid in the front of our eye doesn’t drain properly, leading to pressure that can damage our optic nerve. Sometimes glaucoma comes on quickly, with blurred vision, severe pain and redness of the eye, headache, and nausea. This type, called angle-closure glaucoma, is a serious medical emergency, and a person with these symptoms should seek treatment right away.
However, the most common type of glaucoma by far, called open-angle glaucoma, is painless. It may damage our eyes so slowly that we don’t notice until we’ve suffered quite a bit of vision loss. Although almost 3 million Americans have glaucoma, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) reports that half of them don’t know they have it.
It’s important to know that anyone can have glaucoma—even babies. But the risk increases as we grow older. The risk is also higher among people of African or Mexican heritage, and in people with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high eye pressure. A family history of the disease also raises the risk.
Ask your doctor if you should be tested for glaucoma. The doctor will conduct a series of painless tests to look for signs of the disease. A comprehensive dilated eye exam is the only sure way to diagnose glaucoma.
If glaucoma has already damaged the optic nerve, the resulting vision loss cannot be reversed. But prompt treatment can slow or prevent any further damage. Treatment may include medications (oral and/or eye drops), laser surgery, conventional surgery, and lifestyle changes such as maintaining a healthy weight, keeping blood pressure under control, and giving up smoking.
Following your doctor’s recommendations, reporting medication side effects and having regular eye exams are the best ways to protect your vision for years to come. Medicare may cover the exam for people who are at high risk. For more information, see consumer resources offered by the National Eye Institute and the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your health care provider. Ask your doctor if you should be tested for glaucoma, and report symptoms immediately.