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Cataracts 101: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention

A cataract is blurred vision caused by the clouding of the lens of your eyes. Find out its symptoms, causes and treatments available in Malaysia.

by Katherine Khaw

Cataracts are a common disease among older people. In this article, we will cover the usual signs and symptoms, frequent causes, treatment options and prevention plans.

What are Cataracts?

The National Eye Institute (2022) defines a cataract as a cloudy area in the lens of your eye. The lens of your eye is normally clear. A clear lens in your eye would focus on the surrounding light so that the sight can be processed into a picture, for viewing. A cataract that clouds the lens would cause the eye to be unable to focus on the light, incurring trouble in seeing what is before you. As such, having a cataract would affect your vision in terms of clarity and colour saturation. 

There are many types of cataracts. Here are a few types, as listed below:

  • Age-related cataracts (contracted due to age)
  • Congenital cataracts (the person may be born with cataracts, or developed in early childhood years)
  • Secondary cataracts (developed due to another disease in the body)
  • Traumatic cataracts (occurred due to injury)

After understanding what cataracts are, it is important to recognise the signs and symptoms of cataracts as it can affect daily living.

Symptoms of Cataracts

These are the common symptoms of cataracts, although it may differ from case to case. Cataracts may not exhibit any symptoms at first when it is mild. These are some of the listed ones:

  • Blurry or cloudy vision
  • Colours appear to be faded
  • Less able to see at night
  • Lamps, sunlight and headlights seem too bright
  • A halo ring or glares around lights
  • Seeing double
  • Needing to change glasses’ prescription frequently
  • Distortion of vision

As these symptoms may also describe other vision problems, it is best to consult your eye doctor regarding your concerns. In addition, cataracts can be developed in both eyes, but one eye may be worse than the other if it is developed at different times.

In some cases, children develop cataracts at a young age. These types of childhood cataracts may be referred to as congenital cataracts, or developmental, infantile or juvenile cataracts. The symptoms are similar as to when an adult gets cataracts. Aside from poor vision, the child may suffer from “wobbling eyes”, where the eyes point in different directions.

Risk Factors of Cataracts

Some people are more likely to get cataracts compared to others. Aside from ageing, these may place you at a higher risk for cataracts:

  • Have a health issue, such as diabetes
  • Engage in smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Having a family history of cataracts
  • Experienced an eye injury or eye surgery
  • Undergone radiation treatment on the upper body
  • Frequent sun exposure (exposure to UV radiation)
  • Steroid use (for health problems such as arthritis, rashes, and more)
  • Live in an area with bad air pollution

Cataracts Causes

In spite of the risk factors shared regarding cataracts, the cause of cataracts is not completely known. Instead, experts conclude that there may be several possible causes as below:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Use of steroids
  • Certain diuretic use
  • Certain major tranquillisers

Nonetheless, most cataract cases are caused by normal changes in the eyes as one gets older. At around 40 years old, the proteins in the lens of one’s eye start to break down. Any clumps form would make a cloudy area on the lens, forming the cataract. 

Diagnosing Cataracts

There are several tests that can be carried out to diagnose the presence of cataracts. Your healthcare provider may run some of these tests for your situation:

  • Visual acuity test

This is a test chart that is commonly used for vision ability at varying distances. The doctor will take note of your vision ability.

  • Pupil dilation

Your pupil is widened with eye drops. Then, this allows the doctor to have a close-up examination of the eye’s retina.

  • Slit-lamp exam

The doctor will examine the following features: cornea, iris, lens, and other areas in front of the area. The slit-lamp microscope enables the doctor to spot abnormalities with greater ease.

Aside from these, other relevant tests may be carried out to determine the possibility of cataracts. Tests may also be run to rule out other eye diseases.

Treating Cataracts

If your visit to the doctor has confirmed that you have a cataract infection, the next step is to check available treatment options.

If the condition of the cataracts are mild, lifestyle changes should be instituted promptly to slow down or halt the progression of the disease. For instance, these are some of the small changes that can be carried out:

  • Utilise brighter lights in the home or working environment
  • Wear anti-glare sunglasses
  • Use tools to assist with reading and other activities, such as magnifying lenses
  • Get a new prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses to accommodate to the cataracts solution

Should the condition get severe (affecting daily activities), your doctor may recommend surgery. There are two types of surgeries that can remove cataracts:

  • Phacoemulsification cataract surgery: a common procedure, in which the doctor would remove the clouded lens by breaking it into pieces and replace it with a new plastic lens.
  • Extracapsular cataract surgery: this surgery may be opted instead if the cataract condition is quite advanced, in which the clouded lens is removed in one piece.

After the surgery, a person may experience the following:

  • Itching
  • Slight discomfort
  • A watery eye
  • Light sensitivity
  • Blurred vision

Although some people may be declared ready to return to daily activities (as soon as after one day post-surgery), the healing process takes an average of eight weeks. In addition, it is likely that you may need to use eye drops throughout the recovery period. This helps the eye(s) to heal and prevent infection. This also assists to stabilise the eye pressure. As a general rule of thumb, avoid touching the eyes, bending over, carrying heavy items, or doing things that may risk eye injury.

Cataracts, if left untreated, may interfere with daily activities and ultimately lead to blindness. They may stop growing, but will remain in their existing size.

Cataracts Prevention

There is no definite way to prevent cataracts from happening, but there are some ways to reduce the risk of getting it. These are some of the methods:

1. Maintaining a healthy diet

While some factors cannot be controlled (such as one’s age or family history of diseases), a person can choose to eat well. A sliver of research has shown that consuming foods high in antioxidants may prevent cataracts. For those who already have cataracts, eating these foods could slow down the progress of the disease.

Some examples of food rich in appropriate nutrients:

  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits (such as oranges, lime, pomelo), tomatoes, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, potatoes
  • Vitamin E: vegetable oils, nut, spinach, leafy vegetables

2. Saying no to smoking

Smoking has various side effects on the body, such as the lungs and heart. It also affects the eyes. Harmful toxins are released which can cause cataracts and kill off the good chemicals released from healthy foods. A person who quits smoking despite being a heavy smoker can still reduce their risk. 

3. Wearing sunglasses

Sunglasses do not need to be just a fashion statement. Proper eye protection can help to reduce the harmful glare from UV light emitted from the sun. Useful sunglasses should have features such as the following:

  • Block out 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB rays
  • Screen out 75% to 90% of visible lights
  • A frame that fits close to your eyes
  • A distinctive grey tint

4. Limiting alcohol intake

Drinking too much alcohol may increase your risk for cataracts. Some research has shown that drinking more than two glasses a day (about 20 grams) raises the odds. Nonetheless, this does not mean that you have to abstain from alcohol intake altogether. Moderation is key.

5. Keeping blood sugar in check

A person with diabetes is more likely to get cataracts. This is because the eye lens swells if the blood sugar level is too high, for too long. This changes blood sugar into sorbitol. The increased formation of this substance will affect one’s vision.

6. Engaging in regular eye checkups

An eye doctor is able to spot problems earlier than us. If you are aged 40 and above, it is recommended to get a complete eye exam. A complete eye exam would require the doctor to get your pupils dilated. If you are at higher risk for certain eye diseases, the doctor may check in on your condition more frequently.

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About the Writer
Katherine Khaw
Katherine is an avid reader, finding joy in halls of words. Aside from the imagination wandering in worlds not here, she enjoys stargazing and gardening. In her heart of hearts, she aspires to be a writer, and to be more than mere dust.
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