Because of the aging of the population, cataracts have become the third  leading cause of blindness in Canada. This eye problem leads to gradual vision loss. Learn how cataracts can fortunately be corrected with surgery.

What are cataracts?

Just like a camera, the eye has a lens (called the crystalline), which focuses light on the retina  to create images. Cataracts are a gradual clouding of the crystalline. When not enough light gets through the eye, the images become blurry or fuzzy. Vision problems get worse as the disease progresses. In more serious cases, people can only detect changes in light.

Cataracts generally cause a gradual decline in vision over a number of years. They often affect each eye to different degrees. Cataracts occur most often in people over the age of 50. Cataracts are responsible for an estimated 16 million cases of blindness in the world, and half of these cases are found in African and Asian countries where surgery is less accessible.

What causes cataracts?

We don’t know for sure why cataracts form, but aging is known to be the most common cause. Other possible causes of cataracts include:

  • Certain diseases (e.g., diabetes).
  • Prolonged use of certain medications (including corticosteroids).
  • Certain eye problems (e.g., glaucoma or retinal detachment ).
  • Previous eye surgery.
  • Trauma (e.g., a direct blow to the eye, a cut, exposure to harmful radiation  or a chemical burn).
  • Heredity.

Cataracts in children are rare, but they can be a complication of conditions like Down syndrome (trisomy 21) or the result of an infection (such as rubella or genital herpes) that is spread from the mother to the fetus.

Cataract symptoms and signs

Below are the main symptoms and signs of cataracts:

  • Gradual vision loss.
  • Worsening of myopia (trouble seeing things far away).
  • Blurred  vision.
  • Glare (particularly at night).
  • Sensitivity to light.
  • Colours look faded.
  • Contrasts are less sharp.
  • Diplopia, or double vision (more rare).
  • The pupil (the black circle in the centre of the eye) can become grey or white at an advanced stage.

Cataracts don’t cause pain. If you notice any symptoms, you need to consult an optometrist to get your vision checked.

Cataract prevention

Although aging is the most common cause of cataracts, other factors can increase your risk of developing them: smoking, UV rays, alcohol abuse, and malnutrition. Although we don’t yet know if cataracts can be prevented, you can take the following recommended precautions to try and reduce your risk:

  • Don’t smoke. Smokers tend to develop cataracts earlier in life than non-smokers. See your pharmacist to discuss all the benefits of smoking cessation.
  • If you drink alcohol, keep your intake at a low risk level.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which may contribute to the development of cataracts.
  • Wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat outside to protect your eyes from UVA and UVB rays.
  • Protect your eyes from injury (e.g., at work or during activities).

Cataract treatment

Mild  vision problems caused by cataracts can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. But if the disease gets in the way of your daily activities, cataract surgery is the only possible treatment. No medications can treat cataracts.

To perform the surgery, a doctor will use an ultrasound device to remove the lens  before replacing it with an artificial one. This is a short procedure that doesn’t require a hospital stay. You'll quickly regain your vision after the surgery, but you’ll need to  take some precautions. For example, you should wait 2 weeks before playing sports or putting on eye makeup.

Although the success rate of this surgery is high, complications can occur, such as an infection or hemorrhage. Surgery outcomes are also not fully guaranteed. In 20% to 30% of cases, the lens capsule, or the membrane supporting the artificial lens, can also become cloudy and blur your vision. Fortunately, laser treatment generally restores vision quickly in this case.

For more information about cataracts, don’t hesitate to consult your pharmacist, who is here to answer your questions.

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