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Diabetic retinopathy

The retina is a layer of light-sensitive tissue on the inside back of your eye. In people with diabetes, the retina can slowly become damaged and cause vision problems. This condition is called diabetic retinopathy.

If you have diabetes, you can reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy by managing your diabetes and having regular eye checks.

What causes diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes. Diabetes can cause the tiny blood vessels in the retina to swell and then bleed or leak fluid. This happens in many parts of the body, and can cause problems like kidney disease and poor circulation to the legs.

In the eyes, this process can slowly damage the retina. Both eyes are usually affected.

The longer you have diabetes, the more likely it is that you’ll get diabetic retinopathy. Your risk also increases if your blood sugar levels are not well controlled or if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Diabetic retinopathy symptoms

If you have diabetic retinopathy, you might:

  • have blurred, distorted or patchy vision that can’t be corrected with prescription glasses
  • find it more difficult to read or watch television
  • become sensitive to glare
  • have trouble seeing at night
  • have problems with your balance.

You might not notice any symptoms in the early stages. So if you have diabetes, it is important to get your eyes checked regularly.

Diabetic retinopathy diagnosis

Diabetes Australia recommends that if you have diabetes, you should have your eyes checked when your diabetes is first diagnosed and then at least once every 2 years. See your doctor or organise an eye test with an optometrist if you notice any changes in your vision. Diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed by an eye exam, and if necessary your doctor may refer you to an eye specialist (ophthalmologist).

Diabetic retinopathy treatment

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy can slow or prevent vision loss. Laser treatment can be used to seal leaking blood vessels and stop the growth of abnormal blood vessels. Surgery may be needed in people with more advanced diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy prevention

You can reduce your risk of diabetic retinopathy or further vision loss by:

  • keeping your blood glucose levels under control
  • having regular eye checks
  • maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Last reviewed: August 2016

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