Top 5 Questions About Glaucoma

What you need to know about this eye disease, risk factors and treatment.

Top 5 Questions About Glaucoma

You've probably heard of the eye condition called glaucoma. Maybe an older relative has it, or maybe you've been recently diagnosed. While it's a common cause of blindness, glaucoma has no early warning signs. In fact, about 3 million Americans have glaucoma, but only half of them know it. That's why it's sometimes called "the silent thief of sight."

Eye expert Andrew Iwach, MD, an ophthalmologist at the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco, answers the most frequently asked questions about this common but serious condition.

What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma is an eye disease that damages the optic nerve -- the connection between your eyes and your brain. The nerve damage is usually due to high amounts of pressure inside the eye, either because fluid inside the eye isn't draining well or too much fluid is being produced.

Am I at risk of developing glaucoma?
You may be more likely to develop glaucoma if you have some of these risk factors:

  • African-American, Hispanic or Asian ethnicity
  • Over the age of 60
  • Family history of glaucoma
  • Elevated eye pressure (which your doctor checks during a routine eye exam)
  • Long-term steroid use, such as an inhaler for asthma
  • Past eye injury
  • Smoking
  • Farsightedness or nearsightedness
  • Conditions that affect blood vessels, including high blood pressure, diabetes and migraines

What are the warning signs of glaucoma?
Most people don't notice any symptoms in the early stages of glaucoma. That's why seeing your eye doctor every year is so important. If you don't get your eyes tested regularly, the first symptom you notice could be loss of vision.

How can I prevent glaucoma?
When you turn 40, be sure to see an ophthalmologist. These eye doctors have an MD after their names, meaning they went to medical school and can diagnose and treat serious eye diseases. Most people see an optometrist for vision tests, but as you get older and more likely to develop a disease, you'll want to start seeing an ophthalmologist.

Don't smoke and keep your blood pressure in check. Follow your doctor's treatment plan for controlling other conditions, like diabetes. Use safety glasses when doing chores at home, such as yard work.

How is glaucoma treated?
While there's no way to reverse the effects of glaucoma, the latest drugs and procedures can slow or stop it from getting worse.

Early stages of glaucoma are usually treated with medicated eye drops. These drops work by lowering the pressure inside the eye, which can help prevent nerve damage and vision loss. Of course, using the drops is the key. Be sure to fill your prescription right away and set an alarm or other reminder for your new daily medication.

Eye doctors can also perform a surgical procedure to drain extra fluid from inside the eye and relieve pressure. Some doctors offer laser procedures at their office. The procedure may need to be repeated, and some people still need eye drops after surgery.

Before you start treatment for glaucoma, be sure to tell your eye doctor about any other medical conditions you have. For example, tell your eye doctor if you're on prostaglandins or beta blockers. Some eye drops contain the same type of drug, and your doctor will want to be sure you aren't taking too much.

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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