Eye exams: why you need them and how often you should have them
I have a confession. I had my first real eye exam last month. I’ve always had good vision, so I managed without going through a checkup because I didn’t think I needed it. But here’s the thing. Our brain adapts very well to gradual changes in vision, which makes you think you don’t need glasses. Spoiler alert: I have glasses now.
Eye exams are not only used to determine the quality of your vision. It is also about checking the health of your eyes. Optometrists and ophthalmologists look after overall eye health and screen for eye diseases like glaucoma, cataracts, and rare cancers like ocular melanoma.
What is an eye exam for?
An eye exam has two main functions: to assess your vision and to check for diseases. Let’s talk about why each is needed.
Treat and correct vision problems
A comprehensive eye exam usually includes a visual acuity test and a refractive eye exam. The visual acuity test examines your vision for each eye. It’s the one everyone knows – your doctor will ask you to cover one eye and read the letters on the screen. A refractive eye exam involves looking through a machine with several lens options that you compare. This is how your doctor determines your prescription.
Regular eye exams track your vision over time. As we age, our eyes change, which affects vision. Presbyopia is the natural loss of flexibility of the lens of the eye. This condition makes it more difficult to focus on nearby objects, such as books and computers. Many people see this decrease in their vision in their mid-40s.
Evaluate eye diseases
Even if you don’t need glasses to function, you should still have regular eye exams. Not only are they a chance to assess your eye health and risk of diseases like macular degeneration or cataracts, but they ensure that you get the treatment you need early before your vision is compromised. Your doctor will assess your risk of common eye problems from pupil dilation. Think of your pupil as the window of your eye; by enlarging the pupil, your doctor can see into the structures of the eye.
Eye diseases may have few or no symptoms. Eye exams and dilations are the best way to detect problems and develop a treatment plan.
Eye diseases and conditions your doctor can check for:
- Cataracts: Cataracts describe the opacification of the lens. It can occur in a range of severity, with some small enough not to affect your vision. However, cataracts can become large enough to compromise your vision.
- Glaucoma: Glaucoma occurs when there is too much fluid pressure in the eye. It can damage the optic nerve and seriously damage vision.
- Macular degeneration: Associated with aging, AMD affects the central vision of the eyes. AMD makes a person unable to see things clearly, affecting their ability to perform everyday tasks like driving.
- Diabetic retinopathy: An eye condition that can develop in anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes that affects the retina. This can lead to severe vision loss and blindness.
- Ocular melanoma: According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, ocular melanoma is a rare form of cancer that develops in eye cells that produce pigment. It usually occurs in the uvea or middle layer of the eye. Because it is not on the surface and often invisible to the naked eye, examinations that dilate the eye are often the only way to detect it.
Medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure can affect your vision and increase your risk of eye disease. So it’s important to schedule a regular eye exam to make sure you’re doing the right thing for your vision. Some medications also affect the eyes.
How often should you have an eye exam?
By now you probably know why eye exams are important. But how often should you schedule one? Several factors determine how often you should have an eye exam: age, health status and family history.
General guidelines for eye exams, according to the American Optometric Association, are as follows:
- Under 5 years old: Babies have their first eye exam between six months and one year. The next exam for this age group should take place between three and five years of age.
- 6 to 18 years old: Annual eye exams are recommended for this age group as their vision may change as they get older.
- 19 to 64 years old: At least every two years, this age group should schedule an eye exam to document changes in their vision.
- 65 and over: Annual eye exams are recommended for seniors.
If you fall into one of these categories but have prescription glasses, your doctor will recommend that you have an annual exam, especially if you have a prescription that needs to be renewed for contacts.
The same applies if you are at risk for eye diseases, take medications that affect your vision, or have suffered an eye injury.
Factors that require more frequent eye exams:
- Have a prescription for glasses or contacts.
- Family history of vision problems or eye diseases.
- Living with a chronic disease that increases the risk of eye disease.
- Take medications that can affect your eyes and vision.
- Have previously suffered an eye injury or have had eye surgery.
Too long; did not read?
Eye exams aren’t just for correcting vision with glasses, although that’s the primary function for many people. Eye exams are often the only way to detect and treat eye diseases and conditions that otherwise do not show symptoms. It’s important to track changes in your vision and catch eye problems before they happen.
Adults should receive a comprehensive eye exam at least every two years. People with risk factors for eye disease or who wear glasses should have annual eye exams.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.
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