Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes , caused by high blood sugar levels damaging the back of the eye (retina). It can cause Visual impairment if left undiagnosed and untreated.

However, it usually takes several years for diabetic retinopathy to reach a stage where it could threaten your sight.

To minimise the risk of this happening, people with diabetes should:

  • ensure they control their blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol
  • attend diabetic eye screening appointments annual screening is offered to all people with diabetes aged 12 and over to pick up and treat any problems early on

This page covers:

How diabetes can affect the eyes

Am I at risk of diabetic retinopathy?

Symptoms ofdiabetic retinopathy

Diabetic eye screening

Reduce your risk of diabetic retinopathy

Treatments for diabetic retinopathy

How diabetes can affect the eyes

The retina is the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical signals. The signals are sent to the brainand thebrain turns them into the images you see.

The retina needs a constant supply of blood, which it receives through a network of tiny blood vessels. Over time, a persistentlyhigh blood sugar level can damage these blood vessels in three main stages:

  • tiny bulges develop in the blood vessels, which may bleed slightly but dont usually affect your vision this is known as background retinopathy
  • more severe and widespread changes affect the blood vessels, including more significant bleeding into the eye this is known as pre-proliferative retinopathy
  • scar tissue and new blood vessels, which are weak and bleed easily, develop on the retina this is known as proliferative retinopathy and it can result in someloss of vision

However, if a problem with your eyes is picked up early, lifestyle changes and/or treatment can stopit getting worse.

Read about the stages of diabetic retinopathy .

Am I at risk of diabetic retinopathy?

Anyone with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes is potentially at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.

You're at a greater risk if you:

  • havehad diabetes for a long time
  • have a persistently high blood sugar (blood glucose)level
  • have high blood pressure
  • have high cholesterol
  • are pregnant
  • are of Asian or Afro-Caribbean background

By keeping your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control, you can reduce yourchancesof developing diabetic retinopathy .

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy

You won't usually notice diabetic retinopathy in the early stages, asit doesn't tend to haveany obvious symptoms untilit's more advanced.

However, early signs of the condition can be picked up by taking photographs of the eyes during diabetic eye screening .

Contact your GP or diabetes care team immediately if you experience:

  • gradually worsening vision
  • sudden vision loss
  • shapes floating in your field of vision ( floaters )
  • blurred or patchy vision
  • eye pain or redness

These symptoms don't necessarily mean you have diabetic retinopathy, but it's important to get them checked out.Don't wait until your next screening appointment.

Diabetic eye screening

Everyone with diabetes who is 12 years old or overis invited for eye screening once a year.

Screening isoffered because:

  • diabetic retinopathy doesn't tend to cause any symptoms in the early stages
  • the condition can cause permanent blindness if not diagnosed and treated promptly
  • screening can detect problems in your eyes before they start to affect yourvision
  • if problems are caught early, treatment can help prevent or reduce vision loss

The screening test involves examining the back of the eyes and taking photographs. Depending on your result, you may be advised to return for another appointment a year later, attend more regular appointments, or discuss treatment options with a specialist.


Reduce your risk of diabetic retinopathy

You can reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, or help prevent it getting worse, by:

  • controlling your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • taking your diabetes medication as prescribed
  • attending all your screening appointments
  • getting medicaladvice quickly if you notice any changes to your vision
  • maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy, balanced diet , exercising regularly and stopping smoking


Treatments for diabetic retinopathy

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy is only necessary if screening detects significant problems that mean your vision is at risk.

If the condition hasn't reached this stage, the above advice on managing your diabetes is recommended.

The main treatments for more advanced diabetic retinopathy are:

  • laser treatment
  • injections of medication into your eyes
  • an operation to remove blood or scar tissue from your eyes


Content supplied by the NHS Website

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 28 Nov 2016