The mantra that “prevention is the best cure” is often used in healthcare. This motto is especially true when it comes to eyesight. A staggering 80% of blindness worldwide is preventable. Unfortunately, many cases of preventable vision loss are due to access issues. Global health experts have identified distinctive disparities in vision loss according to geography, gender, and socioeconomic status.
Individuals lucky enough to have access to readily available eye care shouldn’t ignore this privilege. Regular eye exams are critical to preventing ocular health issues and preserving eyesight. However, many people have no idea how often they should visit their eye doctor and thus let their vision health fall by the wayside.
This article explains why eye exams are important and how often people should get their eyes checked based on factors like age, race, existing health conditions, and more.
An eye exam is an opportunity for an eye doctor to check two things: a person’s vision and general ocular health.
Here’s why both of those factors matter.
A person’s vision allows them to see clearly. “Perfect” vision is classified as 20/20. So-called refractive errors may cause impaired vision. Why does this happen? “Refraction” refers to the bending of light rays. As light enters a person’s eyes, their cornea and lens refract the light rays. The light is then focused on the retina – the paper-thin tissue located at the back of the eye – allowing for clear vision.
Refractive errors occur when the shape of the eye prevents incoming light from properly focusing on the retina. In some cases, the eyeball may grow too long or too short, for example. In others, the cornea – the clear outer covering of the eye – may be malformed. Aging is also a factor, as the eye’s lens may become more brittle with age.
Over 150 million Americans have vision issues due to refractive errors. Many aren’t aware of the problem, however. Not being able to see isn’t just uncomfortable. It also poses a safety risk. People with blurry vision shouldn’t be driving, for example. Untreated refractive errors can also cause discomfort, leading to tension headaches.
An eye exam can diagnose common refractive errors, including:
Refractive errors can be quickly addressed with prescription eyeglasses, contact lenses, or even surgical procedures like LASIK. The first step in fixing a refractive error is diagnosing it. Without an eye exam, the person’s vision issues will not be solved.
A comprehensive eye exam isn’t just about checking for 20/20 vision. It’s also critical to diagnosing eye diseases that can impede vision or, in the worst-case scenario, result in vision loss.
Some of the most vital illnesses an eye exam can check for include:
Called AMD, this condition affects the macula – the part of the retina that allows people to see fine details. AMD can cause permanent impairment, making it impossible for people to perform tasks like reading and driving.
These are characterized by a clouding of the eye’s lens. Cataracts are the number one cause of blindness globally. Luckily, they can be treated if caught early enough.
Usually referred to as “pink eye,” this condition results from swelling in the thin layer of tissue lining the inner eyelid. It can be highly infectious – for instance, via contact with shared towels or pillowcases – and is best treated as soon as possible.
This condition is characterized by an inflammation of the eyelids. It causes redness, itchiness, and irritation, resulting in dandruff-like scales forming on a person’s eyelashes. It often goes hand-in-hand with skin conditions like rosacea or dandruff.
This refers to a group of diseases that harm the optic nerve. It often occurs when pressure builds up in the eye due to the accretion of fluid. “Open-angle” types of glaucoma are chronic and progress slowly. “Closed-angle” types of glaucoma progress very quickly, with patients often seeking medical attention only after permanent damage has occurred.
This vision issue is a complication of diabetes and is the primary cause of blindness in U.S. adults. Early diagnosis and proper management decrease the likelihood of vision loss.
Furthermore, eye health is part of overall wellbeing – and even indicates other problems. An optometrist can detect early signs of severe conditions, including high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure. For example, diabetic retinopathy results in damage to the blood vessels in the retina. An eye doctor may notice these signs before an undiagnosed diabetic even realizes they are ill.
The value of regular eye exams is clear – but just what is meant by regular? Different people have different needs. Factors ranging from age to race determine how frequently a person needs to get their eyes checked.
Since every individual has unique needs, the smartest thing to do is to consult an eye doctor. A professional can advise on requisite eye exam frequency depending on the patient’s profile. That said, there are some general rules of thumb that most eye doctors refer to.
People can develop refractive errors at any age. Other than presbyopia, which is common in those 40 and over, most types of refractive errors start in childhood.
Kids should, therefore, have vision checked periodically: once between ages 6 and 12 months, once between ages 12 to 36 months, and again at 5 years of age. A first eye exam checking blink and pupil response is even recommended in newborns.
Since kids develop quickly, annual exams are smart. Blurry vision can otherwise cause school problems, for instance, if kids can’t see the front of the class.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends adults complete an ophthalmologist exam once in their 20s and twice in their 30s. This is assuming that no issues, like eye pain or injury, arise.
The AAO further recommends that adults get a complete ocular exam at age 40, when the first signs of age-related illnesses may appear. After age 50, more frequent exams may be needed depending on any progressive eye issues identified.
The AAO recommends that seniors aged 65 and older have their eyes checked every year or two. At this later stage in life, the risk of AMD, glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetic retinopathy increases.
If a person has already been diagnosed with a refractive error, they may assume they are set for life. Vision can still change over time. People with glasses or contacts should get a vision test every year.
LASIK is an eye surgery that changes the shape of the eye, correcting refractive vision errors. It’s best to get vision checked at least every two years after a LASIK procedure.
Certain people are at higher risk for certain eye diseases and may thus require more regular care. For example, individuals with high blood pressure or a family history of eye health issues may be prone to eye problems.
People with diabetes are another example. Those with type 1 diabetes are generally advised to see an ophthalmologist every year, starting five years after the disease’s onset. People with type 2 diabetes should get a retinal exam annually, starting as soon as they are diagnosed.
Additionally, certain groups are at higher risk for glaucoma, including:
Doctors of persons in these groups may advise them to undergo regular screening. The best way to determine if a patient is high-risk and requires frequent eye exams is to consult an eye doctor. Individual factors like family history, date of diagnosis, sex, gender, age, and more all need to be considered. Concrete recommendations can only be made based on a full patient profile.
People who have never had an eye exam may be nervous about the procedure. It’s a simple and painless process. Knowing what to expect can ease nerves ahead of time. Here are some standard procedures involved.
The eye doctor will check vision, for example, using an eye chart. This determines how well the eyes function at various distances. One eye is covered while the patient reads off a chart with the other eye. This determines a person’s vision – if it is 20/20 or if they need corrective measures.
The doctor will shine a light into the person’s eyes using a small handheld device. The pupil, the dark part in the eye’s center, is meant to be responsive to light. It should widen and contract as it adapts to light exposure. Non-responsive pupils may indicate an underlying health condition.
Peripheral vision refers to a person’s ability to see at the sides of their field of sight instead of just the front. People can experience peripheral vision loss for various reasons, such as a stroke. They may not even notice it until an eye doctor’s diagnosis.
The eye doctor will test ocular motility (i.e., eye movement) by asking the patient to perform simple tasks, like following an object that is moved across their field of vision. This checks that the eye muscles are working correctly.
A tonometry exam checks intraocular eye pressure, also called IOP. Elevated IOP points to glaucoma. The test involves applying a small puff of air to the eye of the patient. Numbing eye drops can make the experience more comfortable for sensitive patients.
Dilating eye drops are instilled into the eye to widen the pupil. This lets the eye doctor examine the optic nerve and retina to check for signs of damage. It doesn’t hurt, but most people are more sensitive to light for a few hours afterward.
The eye doctor uses a slit-lamp microscope to look at the front of the eye. A full examination includes the eyelids, lens, iris, and cornea. The doctor can check for everything from scratches to the cornea to early signs of cataracts.
Sometimes, a person should get an eye exam even if they aren’t due for one. Individuals who notice any of the below issues should see a medical professional as soon as possible:
People should never ignore these symptoms, even if they seem slight or are temporary. For example, bulging eyes can indicate a thyroid condition known as Graves’ disease. A headache accompanied by vision changes can be a sign of a stroke.
The above guide provides an in-depth overview of eye exams, why they matter, and how often different groups of people need them. Here are some final frequently asked questions on the topic.
This isn’t required for everybody. Some people, like diabetics, are advised to get annual eye exams. An eye doctor should advise on eye exam frequency on a case-by-case basis.
This depends on their insurance provider. Risk factors like age may also impact coverage.
No, there is no reliable way to check eyesight at home. Online websites advertising eye exams are also not trustworthy. An ophthalmologist administers the only appropriate eye test.
Anyone who wears contact lenses or glasses should see an eye doctor once per year. Vision can change with age, and prescriptions need to be adapted accordingly.
A comprehensive eye exam won’t take more than one hour. If a person is undergoing a dilated pupil test, they should have someone drive them home afterward due to the temporary increased light sensitivity this test creates.
Eye exams are painless, fast, and often covered by insurance. They offer an easy way to diagnose vision issues as well as potential ocular health problems. The benefits of eye exams are significant, and people who have the opportunity to get tested should do so. A simple test is an easy way to improve and preserve eyesight for a lifetime.