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How to Treat 11 Top Vision Problems

From floaters and flashes to dryness and sharp pain — know what symptoms may signal a bigger problem


spinner image closeup of a persons blue eye with floating transparent spots clouding our vision
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You may think that recent changes in your vision are just another sign you’re getting older. That may not be so. Although nearly half the people who struggle with a visual disability are 65 or older, many of those cases could have been prevented. “It’s not normal to be losing vision as you get older, and there’s usually an underlying reason,” says Rahul Khurana, M.D., a physician and clinical associate professor in ophthalmology at University of California San Francisco Medical Center. With new treatments for a variety of eye diseases, doctors can slow their progression or reverse the damage — though you have to know what’s going on first.

Here are some troubling eye symptoms and what to do if you experience one.

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1. You have double vision

First, a self-test: Cover one eye. Is the symptom still there? If yes, that’s good news. The cause could be dryness; using artificial tears to lubricate the eye surface may help, says Jennifer Eikenberry, M.D., an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at Indiana University School of Medicine. More worrisome is when the problem is “binocular,” meaning that double vision disappears when you close one eye. “It’s a sign that your eyes are not aligned, and we worry that the double vision is caused by a nerve palsy from a stroke or aneurysm,” she explains.

2. You see floaters or flashes

With aging, the gel-like substance in your eye starts to liquefy; as it pulls away from the retina, you may see dark moving spots called floaters. According to Khurana, 85 percent of the time, these are not dangerous. But if you see new floaters or flashes of light in your field of vision, contact an ophthalmologist immediately; you may need a dilated eye exam to rule out a retinal tear.

3. Your eyes feel dry

You may be soaking up too much screen time. Staring at a screen cuts your blink rate in half, so your eyes get parched and uncomfortable easily. If you’re experiencing dry eye daily, take frequent breaks and use preservative-free artificial tears four times a day (even if you don’t think you need them), Eikenberry says.

4. You have a sharp eye pain

If it was a split second of hurt, you’re OK now and your vision is fine, then you don’t have to sound the alarm, Eikenberry says. If, however, the pain lasts awhile, is recurring or is associated with redness, discharge or blurry vision, call your eye doctor, she advises. Eye pain can be caused by a foreign body, infection or injury.

5. Your vision is unusually blurry

You’ll need an eye exam to check the cornea (is there any dryness?), lens (cataracts?) and retina (any bleeding or abnormal blood vessels that would suggest diabetes or high blood pressure?), Eikenberry says. If all is clear, the doctor will work to optimize your glasses prescription and, for dry eye, may recommend artificial tears. Both steps can help sharpen vision.

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6. You’re losing peripheral vision

A gradual decrease in your ability to see out of the sides of your eyes may indicate glaucoma, a condition in which pressure builds up in the eye and damages the optic nerve, Eikenberry explains. Any degradation warrants a scheduled visit to your eye doc. But losing peripheral vision suddenly or to one side may be a sign of a more immediate issue, such as a stroke, tumor or, if accompanied by flashes and floaters, retinal detachment; these symptoms call for an immediate exam.

7. You’re having trouble reading

Presbyopia occurs when the lens loses its ability to change shape and accommodate for close-up vision; this naturally develops after age 40 or so. Although drugstore readers can help, see your optometrist or ophthalmologist: You may now be a good candidate for contact lenses.

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8. You see dark spots in the center of your vision

People describe floaters as spots that move when the eye does. But if you’re seeing a blurry or blind spot in the center of your vision when you’re reading a book or watching TV, that’s not a floater, Khurana says. Choroidal neovascular macular degeneration (wet AMD) is one concern; abnormal blood vessels grow under the retina and can leak fluid. Wet AMD can be treated effectively with drugs and other therapies — only if you catch it early.

9. You have reduced night vision

It may be as simple as uncorrected nearsightedness. “Vision problems often become apparent at night, when the pupil dilates,” notes Doug Wisner, a cataract surgeon and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. A new glasses prescription may be all you need. But another possibility is cataracts, a clouding of the lens that can happen with age.

10. You see glare when you drive

It’s not just you: The glare from headlights is becoming a problem for everyone, thanks to new designs that incorporate LEDs, which emit a higher-intensity blue-wavelength light, Wisner says. Glare, though, can indicate a variety of problems, from dry eye to cataracts, so it’s always a good thing to get checked out, he adds. Regular exams also ensure you’re using your best prescription, which is needed for clear vision at night.

11. You have red in the clear covering over your eye

Uveitis is an inflammation inside your eye. It often means your immune system is fighting an infection such as singles, or it can be from an inflammatory disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. But it can also happen when your immune system attacks healthy tissues in your eyes, according to the National Eye Institute. If you notice redness or eye color changes along with blurry vision, floaters and/or light sensitivity, contact your eye doctor right away. Uveitis can be serious and can even lead to vision loss. Find out more about what changes in your eye color can mean to your health.

spinner image man at optometrist office trying on new glasses
It's important to address new and unusual vision problems with your doctor.
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Whom to See for What?

Different professionals treat specific issues. Here’s a rundown:

Go to the optician if …

  • You have a new glasses prescription.

Go to the optometrist if …

  • You have difficulty reading close up. 
  • You’re experiencing changes in visual acuity. 
  • You tear up more than usual. 
  • You’re suffering from dry eye.

Go to the ophthalmologist if …

  • Your vision is blurry.
  • You notice a dark spot in the middle of your field of vision.
  • You’re seeing flashes or new floaters.
  • You have difficulty seeing far distances.
  • There is a sharp pain in one eye, along with vision changes.
  • You have trouble driving because of glare.

Go to your primary care physician if …

  • You have regular headaches.

Go to the emergency room if …

  • You suddenly lose peripheral vision on one side. 
  • You experience any sudden loss of vision.
  • You have double vision that disappears when you cover one eye

Editor's note: This story, originally published January 30, 2020, has been updated to reflect new information.

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