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Medical Diseases That Can Affect Your Eyes & Vision

Although many people are aware of the common causes of vision loss, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) or glaucoma, fewer people are cognizant about other medical issues that indirectly trigger vision problems.

Various underlying health issues can contribute to vision loss and problems with overall eyesight.

Diabetes

Diabetics are often at an increased risk for diabetic retinopathy. The condition, which relates to high blood sugar, affects the eye’s blood vessels.  Because diabetes affects the body’s ability to produce insulin, which converts blood sugar into cell energy, it may also affect retinal cells.

Therefore, diabetic retinopathy may lead to a buildup of fluid in the back of the retina and the growth of abnormal blood vessels inside the retina. These additional vessels leak blood and other fluids, leading to scarring, vision loss, and sometimes blindness. People who have diabetes are also more susceptible to glaucoma and cataracts.

If scarring becomes a problem, it could lead to a retinal detachment. 

Treatment of Diabetic Retinopathy

According to the National Health Service in the UK, medicines such as ranibizumab and aflibercept are used to treat diabetic retinopathy, both of which can lessen the problem and improve vision. 

Anti-VEGF may also be administered into the eyes as an injection to prevent abnormal blood vessels from forming in the retina. If anti-VEGF treatments don’t work, steroid medications may bring some relief.

Anti-VEGF injections may lead to problems with bleeding, floaters, and irritation. They can potentially trigger dry, watery, or itchy eyes. Blood clots may also form, which can lead to a stroke or heart attack. Steroid injections may increase the pressure in the eye.

If diabetic retinopathy becomes advanced, your eye doctor will recommend laser treatments, eye injections, or eye surgery to remove scarring. Eye surgery is advised when the disease has progressed and can no longer be treated with lasers.

If the scarring is severe, it can lead to a retinal detachment, or a loosening of the retina. People with the condition experience floaters (lines or dots), flashes, a dark curtain-like shadow moving across the field of vision, or blurred eyesight. Surgery is used to correct the problem.

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

High blood pressure is linked to a large number of health problems, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. When high blood pressure is not treated properly, it can lead to blood vessel damage, including the vessels around the eyes.

High blood pressure primarily targets the blood vessels in the retina (the tissue layer in the back of the eye). This distorts the images the nerve signals send to the brain. 

When the retina is damaged in this way, it is called hypertensive retinopathy. Mild hypertensive retinopathy affects approximately 10 to 15 percent of non-diabetic adults.

Hypertension also increases the pressure in the eyes, adding to the buildup of fluids, which affects eye drainage.

Treating Hypertensive Retinopathy

Hypertensive retinopathy can only be treated with careful blood pressure monitoring

Target Organ Damage

When hypertension (HTN) is poorly monitored and controlled, it can lead to target-organ damage (TOD) in the cardiovascular, renal, cerebrovascular, or retinal systems. Hypertension affects the eye by causing damage in the form of retinopathy, optic neuropathy, or choroidopathy.

Retinopathy

Retinopathy defines a blocked retinal blood flow, blurring vision and affecting sight. 

Choroidopathy

Choroidopathy defines an accumulation of fluid in the retina. This leads to distorted vision and sometimes scarring.

Optic Neuropathy

Optic neuropathy damages the optic nerve because the flow of blood becomes blocked. When this happens, it may kill nerve cells, which can trigger temporary or permanent vision loss.

Measles

While measle vaccinations safeguard children and adults against the disease, some outbreaks still occur. Measles can lead to vision difficulties.

Measles is known to trigger conjunctivitis or pink eye. If not treated properly, these may harm the optic nerve or cause corneal infections or damage.

How Measle-Related Conjunctivitis Is Treated

To treat conjunctivitis, your ophthalmologist may prescribe a topical antibiotic in the form of an ointment or eye drops. An antibiotic is used when the patient has an infection, or their immune system has been compromised. It may also be indicated if certain bacteria are suspected.

Lyme Disease

Many people do not know that Lyme disease can lead to eye infections. It can cause conjunctivitis. 

Lyme disease is also known to affect the eye’s mid-portion, or the uvea, resulting in uveitis. Other diseases that may cause uveitis include AIDS, lupus, or multiple sclerosis.

Lyme disease can also damage the optic nerve or the blood vessels in the retina.

Treating Vision Problems Related to Lyme Disease

Doctors normally treat conjunctivitis using antibiotics. Antiviral or antibiotic medicines are given to treat uveitis. Laser surgery or eye surgery may be recommended for damaged blood vessels.

Unfortunately, there are no drugs or surgery that can repair the optic nerve once it is damaged.

Shingles

Shingles is a viral health condition that causes painful rashes and blisters. When shingles (also called herpes zoster) affects the face, it may cause the eyelids to swell or cause inflammation and pain around the eyes.

The virus that causes chickenpox also causes shingles. Around 10 to 20 percent of shingle patients develop herpes zoster ophthalmicus, which may lead to corneal scarring.

Treating Shingles-Related Vision Difficulties

Corneal transplants have been proven to be an effective treatment for shingle complications — complications that may reduce vision to legal blindness. Legal blindness, per the U.S. definition, currently stands at 20/200 or less in the eye that sees better when the best vision correction is used (contact lenses or regular eyeglasses). 

Autoimmune Conditions

A problem with eyesight can indicate an issue with the immune system. In the initial stages, a patient may experience itchy or red eyes or problems with dry eye. If the condition progresses, a patient may experience sensitivity to light, eye pain, or changes in vision quality.

Currently, doctors know of approximately 80 autoimmune diseases that affect a broad range of bodily functions. A disease of the immune system takes place when the natural defense mechanism of the body cannot make the distinction between foreign cells and regular cells. When this happens, the immune system starts attacking the normal cells.

Autoimmune disorders have no cure. However, these conditions may be controlled with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as corticosteroids.

Autoimmune disorders include Celiac disease (which is brought on by gluten sensitivity), multiple sclerosis, dermatomyositis, pernicious anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and scleroderma, among others

Treating Eye Problems Related to Autoimmune Disorders

Doctors may relieve eye discomfort or pain with over-the-counter gels, ointments, and artificial tears. In some cases, they may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medicine. 

When treating dry eye along with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, or scleroderma, the doctor may diagnose the condition as secondary Sjogren’s syndrome.

Rosacea

Rosacea is a skin condition marked by facial redness. When it affects the eyes, it can cause itchiness, dryness, burning, and redness. The condition also may swell the eyes and cause sensitivity to light.

Treating Rosacea Eye Problems

When caught early, ocular rosacea may be treated by applying a warm compress to the eyes or with the use of a gentle eye cleanser. Using eye drops or an eye medication is also advised. In more severe cases, you may need to take an antibiotic.

Cirrhosis of the Liver

Cirrhosis of the liver may lead to various eye problems. Not only can fat accumulate on the eyelids, but the patient may also complain about dry eye or itchiness. In extreme cases, corneal damage and lens damage may occur.

Treating an Eye Condition Related to Liver Disease

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) research shows there is a direct link between eye health and the liver. Therefore, treating liver disease is a major factor in improving the health of the eyes. 

Often called jaundice in cases of liver disease, the term scleral icterus is a medical misnomer, as the condition affects the conjunctiva of the eye, not the white part of the eye known as the sclera

This part of the eye takes on a yellowish cast when bilirubin levels begin to rise. Therefore, the correct term for the yellowing of the eyes is conjunctival icterus. It is sometimes the only indication of jaundice during a physical exam. If a diseased liver does not remove enough bilirubin in the blood, the eyes will take on a yellow hue.

If there are liver imbalances, eye conditions, such myopia, astigmatism, retinitis pigmentosa, presbyopia, dry eyes, floaters, and AMD may emerge.

Depending on the nature of the eye problem, doctors may treat the patient with lasers, gels, and pressure-reducing injections. Sometimes, the liver is treated using a copper-reducing treatment to encourage better liver and eye health.

Malnutrition

Malnutrition can drastically affect overall health and well-being. If you eat poorly, you can increase your risk of diabetes or high blood pressure. Deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals can increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) or circulatory disorders that affect the blood vessels in the eye.

You should regularly include vitamins, such as vitamins C and E, zinc, and lutein, in your diet to reduce the risk of eye diseases and degeneration.

Prevention Is the Key

Eating a well-balanced diet can prevent health problems that lead to vision issues over time. This may involve changing the way you eat, quitting smoking or drinking, or getting more exercise and sleep.

Sickle Cell Disease (SCD)

Sickle cell disease represents several inherited red blood cell disorders. While healthy red blood cells are round, “sickle” cells look like the old-fashioned farm instrument and form a “C.” 

These cells die early, which causes a reduction in the red blood cell count. This can lead to health problems, as the red blood cells contain the hemoglobin that holds oxygen. Because the “sickle” cells are sticky and hard, they may impede blood flow as well, which can trigger serious medical issues, such as chest pain, infections or a stroke.

SCD may be referred to as these terms:

  • HbSS disease or sickle cell anemia: This is a form of the disease that causes the worst symptoms. However, vision loss is less common in people with HbSS.
  • HbSC: This affects the retina most frequently. Patients have higher rates of vision loss when they have HbSC.
  • HbAS: This is defined as sickle cell trait and usually does not lead to eye symptoms. However, higher eye pressure and lower oxygen levels may lead to vision loss in rare cases.

Sickle cell retinopathy is the main eye problem that is related to SCD. It may affect one or more parts of the retina.

Proliferative sickle retinopathy happens in the ischemic retina because of lack of oxygen. Bleeding may occur because these vessels are fragile.

Sickle cell maculopathy affects the central area of the retina as a result of a decrease in blood flow. When this happens, patches of retinal thinning occur. Patients may complain of blind spots when this occurs.

Bleeding or a vitreous hemorrhage may take place in the center of the eye when abnormal blood vessels in the retinal break.

Retinal detachments may occur as well from tears in the ischemic retina or when abnormal blood vessels or scar tissue pull on the retina. This can lead to substantial vision loss.

Treating Sickle Cell Retinopathy

Doctors may treat proliferative sickle cell retinopathy with lasers, addressing the ischemia (blood vessel blockage) so abnormal blood vessels won’t continue to form. They may also use injectable drugs to prevent the formation of new blood vessels in the retinal area. 

Surgery is often recommended for conditions such as retinal detachment of vitreous hemorrhage. 

Lifestyle Changes

While eating more nutritiously and exercising can lead to better eye health, it is also important to refrain from drinking and smoking. Take care of your eyes to prevent eye strain and wear protective sunglasses when you’re involved in outdoor activities.

Adequate rest and regular exercise can also help to promote overall health, including eye health.

Early Management

Eye problems can be detected and effectively treated if caught early. If you currently have a health condition that may result in problems with vision, make an appointment to see your eye doctor. Regular checkups are crucial to early diagnosis and treatment.

References

  1. Treatment: Diabetic Retinopathy. (December 2021). National Health Service.

  2. Detached Retina (Retinal Detachment). (December 2020). National Health Service.

  3. [Hypertension-Related Eye Disorders]. (November 2013). Orvosi Hetilap.

  4. How High Blood Pressure Can Lead to Vision Loss. (March 2022). American Heart Association.

  5. Hypertensive Retinopathy. (July 2022). StatPearls.

  6. Regenerating the Optic Nerve. (February 2020). The Eye & Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh.

  7. Corneal Transplants Effective for Shingles-Related Complications. (April 2019). University of Michigan Health Lab.

  8. Low Vision and Legal Blindness Terms and Descriptions. (2020). American Foundation for the Blind.

  9. Autoimmune Diseases. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

  10. Classification Criteria for Secondary Sjögren’s Syndrome: Current State of Knowledge. (October 2019). Reumatologia.

  11. Rosacea Treatment: Eye Problems. American Academy of Dermatology Association.

  12. Beyond the Liver: Liver-Eye Communication in Clinical and Experimental Aspects. (December 2021). Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences.

  13. Clinical Examination: Eyes. (June 2016) Clinical Liver Disease: A Multimedia Review Journal.

  14. Chelation Therapy in Liver Diseases of Childhood: Current Status and Response. (November 2021). World Journal of Hepatology.

  15. What Is Sickle Cell Disease? (August 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  16. Sickle Cell Retinopathy. (2020). The Foundation American Society of Retina Specialists.

Last Updated December 20, 2022

Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.