September 2022

Print this issue

Cloudy Vision?

It Could Be Cataracts

Your eyes are your windows to the world. If something clouds them, you may have trouble seeing well enough to read, drive, or do other daily activities.

One common cause of cloudy vision is cataracts. These form in the lens of your eye. Cataracts are a normal part of aging. They occur when proteins in the lens break down over time and clump together.

The risk of getting cataracts rises as you get older. More than half of people in the U.S. over the age of 80 either have cataracts or have had surgery to remove them.

“Everybody who lives long enough gets cataracts,” says Dr. Chantal Cousineau-Krieger, an eye surgeon at NIH.

Some people may develop cataracts at an earlier age than others. Smoking or exposure to lots of sunlight can increase the risk of cataracts. Certain types of eye surgeries and injuries can trigger a cataract. Some medications can also raise your risk.

Cataracts may not cause symptoms when they first form. But over time, your vision can become cloudy or blurry. Colors may look faded. You might not be able to see as well at night as you used to. Lamps, sunlight, or headlights can seem too bright. You may notice a halo around light sources. Or you may start to see two images instead of one.

These symptoms can also be a sign of other common eye problems. If you have problems with your vision, talk with an eye doctor. They can perform a dilated eye exam. These exams use eye drops to widen part of your eye called the pupil. The doctor can then look into your eye for cataracts and other problems.

If you have mild cataracts, using a magnifying lens and brighter lights can help you see better inside. Sunglasses that reduce glare can help with vision outside.

Cataracts that are bad enough to interfere with daily activities can be treated with surgery. An eye surgeon first uses ultrasoundHigh-frequency sound waves that can’t be heard by the human ear. or a laser to break up the cloudy lens. Then, they put a new plastic lens in its place.

A bonus from cataract surgery is that the new lens can often improve how well you see objects at a distance, explains Cousineau-Krieger. “We’re always aiming to get you the best vision that we can and reduce your dependence on glasses,” she says.

People are awake during cataract surgery. “But we give you medicine to make you comfortable and relaxed. It’s not a painful procedure or a painful recovery,” says Cousineau-Krieger. “Overall, it’s a very low-risk surgery. And the benefits are tremendous. By the next day, most patients have better vision than they came in with.”

NIH-funded researchers are working to better understand what makes proteins in the eye clump and cause cataracts. Eventually, their goal is to develop drugs that can prevent cataracts or even reverse them.

“Right now, you can’t reverse a cataract once it’s started. But you might be able to slow the rate of progression,” Cousineau-Krieger says.

See the Wise Choices box for tips to help delay cataracts and protect your vision.