10 Things Your Vision Reveals About Your Health

Changes in your vision may be signs of other medical conditions.

Medically reviewed in October 2020

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When your doc peers into your eyes, what is she looking for? All kinds of things, as it happens. "You can learn so much from the eyes–it's mind-blowing!" says integrative medicine specialist Robin Miller, MD. In addition to eye conditions, such as cataracts, doctors can also spot symptoms of other medical conditions, says ophthalmologist Anne Sumers, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Blurred vision may be a sign of diabetes, for example. Other eye symptoms may be signs of hypertension or high cholesterol, diabetes or Alzheimer's disease. Discover 10 ways changes in your vision can hold important clues to your health.

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Do You Have Hypertension?

Blurred vision may be a symptom of undiagnosed or poorly controlled hypertension, says Sumers. And in pregnant women, blurred vision could be a sign of preeclampsia, a condition that causes high blood pressure during pregnancy and may require Mom to go on bed rest for the safety of the developing fetus. Your doctor may also spot swelling of the optic nerve when she peers into your retina. Blood vessels in the retina that look stiff, kinked or that look gray or bronze rather than red can be signs of high blood pressure.

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Eye Spy High Cholesterol

When gazing into a patient's eyes, "I'm looking for signs of high cholesterol," says Miller. Yellow, fatty patches around your eyes are cholesterol deposits called xanthelasma, and they may indicate an elevated risk for heart disease. "That's pretty common to see in people with familial high cholesterol," she adds. Miller also looks for a white ring around the pupils, called a corneal arcus, which is another sign you may have high cholesterol. "It's actually a fat deposit," she says. If your doc spots a xanthelasma or corneal arcus, it's a good idea to have your cholesterol checked, too.

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Your Eyes May Forecast AFib

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a common condition that causes a fast or irregular heartbeat. A recent Johns Hopkins study found that people with signs of microvascular disease (MVD)–that's miniscule damage to the tiny blood vessels of the eyes–may have a higher-than-normal risk for developing AFib and heart attack. This is actually good news, because knowing you might be at risk for atrial fibrillation enables you to take steps to safeguard your heart health.

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Blurred Vision May Mean Diabetes

Diabetic retinopathy is a leading cause of blindness, but high blood sugar can wreak havoc on your vision in other ways, too. Blurred vision? Your contacts suddenly don't do the job? That can be a sign of undiagnosed diabetes or, if you've been diagnosed with diabetes, poorly controlled blood sugar, says Sumers. And it's especially important to see your doctor if you're pregnant and experience changes in your eyesight, she adds. "Frequently, the first symptom of gestational diabetes is blurred vision."

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Could It be a Stroke?

A stroke or, to a lesser degree, transient ischemic attack (TIA) has plenty of scary symptoms—sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, difficulty speaking, drooping on one side of the face, to name a few. But double vision or temporary loss of vision that feels like a shade being drawn over your eye (called amaurosis fugax) can also be a sign of a stroke or TIA about to happen. If you suspect a stroke in yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately. Speedy treatment is crucial to minimize lasting damage.

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Eyes Can Reveal Neurological Disorders

What's going on in your eyes can be a symptom of a neurological disorder. Temporary loss of vision in one eye, changes in the way your pupil reacts to bright light or pain when you move the eye may be sign of optic neuritis, says Miller. That's inflammation of the optic nerve, and it can be a symptom of multiple sclerosis. Dry eye or difficulty focusing may be a sign of Parkinson's disease, says Sumers. And patients who come in complaining of difficulty making sense of what they read may have an early symptom of Alzheimer's. "The issue isn't their vision," Sumers notes, "but that they're having trouble processing what they see."

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How's Your Thyroid?

"I always look at the eyebrows," says Miller. Losing hair at the outside of your eyebrows may be a symptom of an overactive (hyperthyroidism) or underactive (hypothyroidism) thyroid. And hyperthyroidism could be caused by Graves' disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder also known as thyroid eye disease. Symptoms of Graves' disease include double vision, dry eye and bulging eyes—former first lady Barbara Bush and comedian Marty Feldman are two famous examples. Treating thyroid disorders with hormone therapy or radioactive iodine can help minimize symptoms. Artificial tears help soothe dry eye, and short-term steroids, such as prednisone, help reduce swelling and prevent blindness.

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Signs of Skin Cancer?

Miller also takes an extra-close look at her patients' eyelids, which can reveal all kinds of clues. "Sometimes you'll see skin cancer in the eyelid—like a sty that doesn't go away," she explains. "Melanoma can show up in the eye, too, because there's pigment in the iris." Karposi's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that develops in patients with advanced AIDS, can show up as purple lesions on the eyelids. Your eyes can reveal other, less-frightening clues about your skin. Flakey, red, irritated skin around the eyelid could also be a symptom of rosacea or psoriasis. Red, itchy eyes may be signs of poorly controlled seasonal allergies.

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Yellow Eyes Equal Liver Disease?

You'd probably notice if the whites of your eyes—your sclera—are looking yellow, or jaundiced. "That may be a sign of underlying liver disease," says Miller, such as cirrhosis or hepatitis. But a more common cause of jaundiced sclera is pinguecula, or thickening of the clear membrane that covers the whites of the eyes. It's caused by too much exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays, so it's another good reason to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from sun damage.

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Eyes and Your Immune System

Anything that takes a toll on your immune system is hard on your eyes, too. Dry eye can be a symptom of autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjorgren's syndrome. Blurred vision, double vision, floating spots and other vision changes can be symptoms of serious infections, such as Lyme disease and HIV. Yellow sclera (whites of your eyes) can be a sign of a fungal infection.

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Changes in Vision? See Your Doctor

So, now you know that your doctor is looking for all kinds of things when she looks into your eyes. But you don't have to wait for your next eye exam to find out what's going on with your health. "People can look at their eyes themselves," says Miller. "If you see something that looks funky, have it checked out." And if you notice any sudden change, such as blurred vision or a change in how well your prescription for contacts or glasses is working, make an appointment with your eye doc immediately. "Sometimes, it's a symptom of another systemic disease," says Sumers. And if it turns out to be no big deal, you'll feel a whole lot better.

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