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What causes cataracts and when do you need cataract surgery?
What are cataracts?
Cataracts are a degenerative condition of the eye, normally age-related. The lens in your eye gradually clouds over, obstructing the passage of light and causing vision loss. Cataracts can make it increasingly difficult for you to drive, read, watch television or undertake daily activities, especially at night. If left untreated, cataracts can lead to blindness.
“Cataract surgery typically takes less than 45 minutes.”
What causes cataracts?
Most often, cataracts develop gradually with age. They are more likely to develop in people with severe myopia (short-sightedness), which is on the rise because of the amount of time we spend staring at screens.
Some eye diseases, eye injuries or prolonged exposure to UV sunlight (without sunglasses) may also lead to the development of cataracts. If you have diabetes you are more likely to develop cataracts. Smoking also increases your risk.
Cataracts can also develop following prolonged used of steroid medication to treat chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, although this is less common.
It’s possible to be born with congenital cataracts but this is extremely rare.
Who develops cataracts?
Most of us will develop cataracts if we live long enough.
It’s rare for people under the age of 40 to have cataracts. By the age of 70, most people will have developed some degree of cataracts. The latest report from 2021 showed about 411,000 Australians (around 1.7% of the population) had cataracts. In Australians aged 65 and older, women are slightly more likely to have developed cataracts than men (10.6% versus 7.4%).
You’re more at risk if you:
- have had eye injuries
- have diabetes
- have a family history of cataracts
- spend prolonged time in the sun without suitable eye protection.
What are some common cataract symptoms?
- blurred or hazy vision
- fading or yellowing of colours
- starbursts around lights
- halos around lights
- sensitivity to bright light.
How can you detect cataracts?
Your optometrist can detect and confirm the early signs of cataracts, sometimes before you even become aware of any symptoms. That’s one of the reasons why regular eye tests are so important.
Cataracts normally develop in both eyes, but they may develop at different rates, and it’s possible to develop cataracts in only one eye.
Interestingly, people with cataracts may find they no longer need to use reading glasses, because the cataract increases the focusing power of the lens.
Can you prevent cataracts?
You can’t entirely prevent cataracts developing but you may be able to slow their progression.
- Wear sunglasses
- Avoid smoking
- Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Control your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes.
Tip: Eggs are also a good source of antioxidants, which may help to reduce the likelihood of developing cataracts.
How do you treat cataracts?
Most cataracts develop slowly, so corrective glasses or contact lenses may be all you need to improve your vision in the early stages. If the cataracts are caused by diabetes, you may be able to correct them by controlling your blood sugar levels.
Surgery is currently the only successful treatment for cataracts.
What happens during cataract surgery?
Cataract surgery is one of the most common surgical procedures in the world. The simple procedure is performed using traditional incision or ultrasound to break up the cataract. During the procedure, the surgeon removes the cloudy lens in your eye and replaces it with a see-through plastic lens, also known as an intraocular lens (IOL).
Most cataract surgery is performed under local anaesthetic with light sedation.
How long does cataract surgery take?
Cataract surgery typically takes less than 45 minutes. Under normal circumstances you won’t have to stay in hospital overnight, and the entire procedure should be completed in around two to three hours.
Can you have both eyes operated on at once?
Cataract surgery carries very little risk, but most surgeons would be reluctant to operate on both eyes at the same time. They would prefer to wait for your first eye to settle and recover before operating on your other eye.
What happens after surgery?
After the procedure you may notice some discomfort. Your doctor will prescribe eye drops and you will probably need to wear a patch over your eye for a short period.
Initially, you will be advised to avoid:
- rubbing your eye
- swimming or getting water in your eye
- strenuous activity or contact sports
You should recover your vision within a few days and most people can resume normal activities within four to six weeks.
Are there any possible complications?
Cataract surgery is one of the safest and most commonly performed surgical procedures in Australia. However, as with any surgery, complications can happen. These can include:
- detachment of the retina
- dislocation of the new lens.
These complications are rare, but they may involve additional surgery and could lead to permanent visual impairment.
If you experience any severe pain, nausea, bleeding, fluid coming from your eye or if your sight gets worse, contact your doctor immediately or go to a hospital emergency department.
Is the cost of cataract surgery covered under private health insurance?
Yes, depending on your level of Hospital cover. Cataract surgery has its own clinical category, so you won’t find it listed on your Hospital product sheet under ‘Eyes’. Look specifically for ‘Cataracts’. Please check your policy for more details. If you need help, please call us on 1300 654 123.
You can reduce or eliminate any out-of-pocket costs by asking your surgeon to treat you under the CBHS Access Gap Cover arrangement. You can also use our Access Gap Search to find a doctor who generally participates or who has agreed to alternative ‘no gap’ arrangements. You’ll still need to confirm with the doctor that they are willing to treat you under the CBHS Access Gap Cover arrangement.
More information about eye health
Our CBHS website has more information about eye health, including tips on keeping your eyes healthy.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
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