Eye FAQs

Tanning beds produce high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light, which can tan the skin but can also burn the cornea, the clear covering of the eye. You do not feel the burn until 6 to 12 hours after exposure, so you can suffer a severe corneal burn without realizing it while tanning or immediately after. A UV light can also cause cataracts and can be a factor in the development of macular degeneration.

As they say, an ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure, so always wear special protective eyewear while using a tanning bed. Closing your eyes, wearing regular sunglasses, and placing cotton pads on your eyelids do not protect your corneas from the intense UV radiation produced by tanning devices.

Tanning facilities are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to provide safety goggles, but it is best to obtain your own pair so you will always be prepared. Make sure your goggles fit snugly, cover your eyes properly, and are completely opaque. If you use the salon's goggles, be sure that the salon personnel sterilizes them after each use to prevent infection and that the goggles are approved for this particular use.

Since the skin does not usually get burned from tanning devices, most people do not realize the potential damage to their eyes. If you experience any eye pain after UV exposure, contact your ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.).

Tobacco smoking is directly linked to many adverse health effects, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. Smoking is also linked to eye disease.

How does smoking affect the eyes?

People who smoke cigarettes are at increased risk for developing cataracts, a clouding of the naturally clear lens of the eye. Cataracts cause a variety of vision problems, including blurry distance vision, sensitivity to glare, a loss of contrast sensitivity, and difficulty seeing colors. When eyeglasses or magnifiers are no longer helpful for someone with cataracts, or when cataracts develop in both eyes, surgery is the only option.

Tobacco smoking is also one of the preventable risk factors for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Studies have shown that current smokers and ex-smokers are more likely to develop AMD than people who have never smoked. AMD has two forms: dry (called atrophic) AMD and wet (called exudative) AMD. In dry AMD, your retina gradually thins. There is no proven cure for this type of degenerative disease. In wet AMD, new blood vessels grow in the retina, leaking blood or fluid and damaging the macula, the part of the retina responsible for your central vision. Permanent vision loss may occur with both types of AMD, so an attempt at prevention is of utmost importance.

Some studies suggest that in people with high blood sugar levels, smoking may be linked to diabetic retinopathy or damage to the blood vessels in the retina. The optic nerve is also susceptible to damage from smoking. People with poor diets who smoke heavily and drink excessive amounts of alcohol run the risk of developing optic nerve-related vision loss (called tobacco-alcohol amblyopia). Certain optic nerve problems, like Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy, can run in families. People with this condition who smoke have an increased risk of vision loss. Some patients with thyroid disease (called Graves' disease) may also have eye involvement; smoking may cause their eyes to become worse, and vision loss is also possible. People who do not produce enough tears to keep their eyes comfortably lubricated have a condition called dry eyes. For these people, smoking is a significant irritant, worsening the symptoms of scratchiness, stinging or burning of the eyes, and excess tearing from irritation.

How does smoking affect fetal and infant eye health?

Studies have also shown a strong association between smoking during pregnancy and the risk of invasive meningitis during early childhood. The risk of bacterial meningitis is five times higher among children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy. In addition to other severe health problems, childhood meningitis can cause inflammation of the cornea and pink eye. Smoking during pregnancy is also associated with low birth weight and premature birth. Finally, oxygen therapy given to sustain the lives of premature infants can cause retinopathy of prematurity, causing permanent vision loss or blindness in the infant.

There are resources to help you quit smoking.

There are numerous community organizations committed to helping people quit smoking. The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers smoking cessation classes across the United States. Contact ACS at 800.ACS.2345 or online at www.cancer.org to find the chapter near you.

The World Health Organization estimates that corrective lenses can improve the eyesight of one-fourth of the world's population. Unfortunately, for many people, a pair of eyeglasses is both unaffordable and unobtainable. The donation of old but useful eyeglasses to the needy in the US and abroad can help solve this problem.

The Lions Clubs International and local Lions Clubs conduct eyeglass-recycling programs. Used glasses are cleaned, repaired, and classified by prescription, then distributed free to needy people in developing countries around the world.

Contact a local Lions Club or call Lions Club International at 630.571.5466 to find a local recycling center. Chapters collect the used prescription eyeglasses, reading glasses, and even sunglasses, and then package and ship them to the centers.

Community services for the visually impaired often have names of those needing glasses. Many ophthalmologists (Eye M.D.s) and optometrists accept donations. Donating your eyeglasses to any charitable organization will improve the eyesight of those in need.

How Are Ophthalmologists, Optometrists, and Opticians Different?

Ophthalmologists (Eye M.D.s) are different from optometrists and opticians in their training and in what they can diagnose and treat.

As a medical doctor, an ophthalmologist is licensed to practice medicine and surgery. He or she diagnoses and treats all eye diseases, performs eye surgery, and prescribes and fits glasses and contact lenses.

Ophthalmologists complete

  • four years of college
  • four years of medical school
  • one year of internship
  • at least three years of residency (hospital-based training) in the diagnosis and medical and surgical treatment of disorders of the eye.

While all ophthalmologists specialize in eye problems and can treat all conditions, some decide to concentrate in a specific area of medical or surgical eye care. These ophthalmologists are called subspecialists. They usually complete a fellowship, which requires one or two more years of training in the chosen area. Some subspecialists focus on the treatment of a disease, such as glaucoma. Others subspecialize in a particular part of the eye, such as the retina. Pediatric ophthalmologists subspecialize in treating eye disease in children.

An optometrist is a doctor of optometry, licensed to practice optometry. Optometrists determine the need for glasses and contact lenses, prescribe optical correction, and screen for abnormalities of the eye. They attend two to four years of college and four years of optometry school.

In some states, optometrists can prescribe certain kinds of drugs to help diagnose and treat some eye conditions. Optometrists generally do not perform surgery.

An optician is licensed by the state to make optical aids. He or she fits, adjusts, and dispenses eyeglasses, contact lenses, and other optical devices according to the prescription of a licensed ophthalmologist or optometrist. Training for opticians varies from a preceptorship to two years of opticianry school.

How to View a Solar Eclipse

Looking at a solar eclipse is as dangerous as staring at the unblocked sun and can cause damage to the retina, the light-sensitive nerve layer at the back of the eye. The damage affects the macula, the part of the retina responsible for fine central vision.

Many people think they can protect their eyes by looking through filtered binoculars, sunglasses, neutral density filters, or exposed photographic or radiographic film. However, a retinal burn can occur in spite of all these barriers. In a 1970 solar eclipse in the eastern United States, 145 retinal burns were reported. Forty percent of the injured patients were using protective filters. Parents must caution children not to look directly at the sun. Not only are children more tempted to watch an eclipse, but the damage is usually more severe because the child's natural lens is so clear that it lets more ultraviolet (UV) rays reach the back of the eye.

There are safe ways to view an eclipse. Attend a display at a planetarium or university astronomy department, where optical instruments are used to project an image of the eclipse from a telescope to a screen for safe viewing. Alternatively, watch the eclipse on television or use the simple pinhole camera described below.

Take two sheets of plain white paper. Make a pinhole in the center of one of the pieces. Then stand with your back to the sun and hold the sheet with the pinhole in front, so that the sun shines through the pinhole and onto the other sheet of paper. An image of the eclipse will be projected onto this second sheet. It is amazing how well you can observe a solar eclipse with this simple device.

If you suspect that you or a family member might have suffered a solar injury to the eye, consult an ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) as soon as possible.

One's first encounter with the herpes zoster virus is usually childhood chickenpox. Later in life, the virus may reactivate, causing a characteristic rash of small blisters, frequently on the chest or forehead, which form crusts and may leave scars. This second encounter with the virus is commonly known as shingles.

Unlike chickenpox, shingles is usually quite painful. Although this disease often occurs in normal, healthy people, it occurs more frequently in elderly or immune-compromised individuals. It is important to see an ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) when herpes zoster occurs on the face because the virus can invade the eye. An ophthalmologist looks for elevated pressure in the eye, inflammation inside the eye, and herpes zoster lesions on the surface of the eye. All of these problems can be treated, but they are sometimes difficult to manage. Careful treatment and follow up are required. Today, new oral antiviral medications are providing shingles patients with a quicker, more complete recovery.

Myth: Reading in dim light is harmful to your eyes.
Fact: Although reading in dim light can make your eyes feel tired, it is not harmful.

Myth: It is not harmful to watch a welder or look at the sun if you squint or look through narrowed eyelids.
Fact: Even if you squint, ultraviolet light still reaches your eyes, damaging the cornea, lens, and retina. Never watch welding without wearing proper eye protection. Never look directly at a solar eclipse.

Myth: Using a computer screen is harmful to the eyes.
Fact: Although using a computer screen is associated with eyestrain or fatigue, it is not harmful to the eyes.

Myth: If you use your eyes too much, you will"wear them out."
Fact: You can use your eyes as much as you want - you will not wear them out.

Myth: Wearing poorly fitting eyeglasses damages your eyes.
Fact: Although a good fit is required for good vision, a poor fit does not damage your eyes.

Myth: Wearing poorly fitting contact lenses does not harm your eyes.
Fact: Poorly fitting contact lenses can be harmful to your cornea, the clear front window of your eye. Make certain your ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) checks your eyes regularly if you wear contact lenses.

Myth: You do not need to have your eyes checked until you are in your 40s or 50s.
Fact: Several asymptomatic yet treatable eye diseases (most notably glaucoma) can begin prior to your 40s.

Myth: Safety goggles are more trouble than they are worth.
Fact: Safety goggles prevent many potentially blinding injuries every year. Keep your goggles handy and use them!

Myth: It is okay to swim while wearing soft contact lenses.
Fact: Potentially blinding eye infections can result from swimming or using a hot tub while wearing contact lenses.

Myth: Children will outgrow"crossed" eyes.
Fact: Children do not outgrow truly crossed eyes. A child whose eyes are misaligned has strabismus and can develop poor vision in one eye (a condition known as amblyopia), because the brain"turns off" the misaligned or"lazy" eye. The sooner crossed or misaligned eyes are treated, the less likely the child will have permanently impaired vision.

Myth: A cataract must be"ripe" before it can be removed.
Fact: With modern cataract surgery, a cataract does not have to mature before it is removed. When a cataract interferes with your regular daily activities, you can talk with your ophthalmologist about having it removed.

Myth: Cataracts can be removed with lasers.
Fact: Cataracts cannot be removed with a laser. The cloudy lens must be removed through a surgical incision. However, after cataract surgery, a membrane within the eye may become cloudy. This membrane can be opened with laser surgery.

Myth: Eyes can be transplanted.
Fact: The eye cannot be transplanted. It is connected to the brain by the optic nerve, which cannot be reconnected once it has been severed. However, the cornea can be transplanted.

Myth: All eye-care providers are the same.
Fact: An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (M.D.) or doctor of osteopathy (D.O.), uniquely trained to diagnose and treat all disorders of the eye. An ophthalmologist is qualified to perform surgery, prescribe and adjust eyeglasses and contact lenses, and prescribe medication. An optometrist (O.D.) is not a medical doctor but is specially trained to diagnose eye abnormalities and prescribe, supply, and adjust eyeglasses and contact lenses. In most states, optometrists can use drugs to treat certain eye disorders.

An optician fits, supplies, and adjusts eyeglasses and contact lenses. An optician cannot examine the eyes or prescribe eyeglasses or medication. See How Are Ophthalmologists, Optometrists and Opticians Different?

Color blindness (color vision deficiency) is a condition in which certain colors cannot be detected. There are two types of color vision difficulties: congenital (inherited) problems that you have at birth, and problems that develop later in life.

People born with color vision problems are unaware that what they see is different from what others see unless it is pointed out to them. People with acquired color vision problems are aware that something has gone wrong with their color perception.

Congenital color vision defects usually pass from mother to son. These defects are due to partial or complete lack of the light-sensitive photoreceptors (cones) in the retina, the layer of light-sensitive nerve cells lining the back of the eye. Cones distinguish the colors red, green, and blue through visual pigment present in the normal human eye. Problems with color vision occur when the amount of pigment per cone is reduced, or one or more of the three-cone systems are absent. This limits the ability to distinguish between greens and reds, and occasionally blues. It involves both eyes equally and remains stable throughout life.

There are different degrees of color blindness. Some people with mild color deficiencies can see colors normally in good light but have difficulty in dim light. Others cannot distinguish certain colors in any light. In the most severe form of color blindness, everything is seen in shades of gray.

Except in the most severe form, color blindness does not affect the sharpness of vision at all. It does not correlate with low intelligence or learning disabilities.

Most color vision problems that occur later in life are a result of disease, trauma, toxic effects from drugs, metabolic disease, or vascular disease. Color vision defects from the disease are less understood than congenital color vision problems. There is often uneven involvement of the eyes and the color vision defect will usually be progressive. Acquired color vision loss can be the result of damage to the retina or optic nerve.

There is no treatment for color blindness. It usually does not cause any significant disability. However, it can prevent employment in an increasing number of occupations.

Changes in color vision can signify a more serious condition. Anyone who experiences a significant change in color perception should see an ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.).

Complaints of eye discomfort and fatigue are becoming more common as the use of computer screens increases. While it is true that computer screens can cause eyestrain, there is no convincing evidence that they can harm the eyes.

Some people fear that computer screens emit damaging ultraviolet (UV) light or radiation. The amount of UV light emitted by computer screens is a fraction of what is emitted from a fluorescent light. Radiation levels from computer screens are so low that a lifetime of exposure will not damage the eyes. After prolonged use of a computer screen, black and white objects may appear colored, but this is not a sign of eye damage.

Symptoms of eyestrain are eye irritation (red, watery, or dry eyes), eye fatigue (tired, the aching heaviness of the eyelids or forehead), difficulty in focusing, and headaches. However, eyestrain does not result in permanent eye damage.

Eyestrain, backache, and muscle spasms may improve with proper arrangement of the computer screen and seating area. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides helpful suggestions on the workstation arrangement.

It is important to wear appropriate eyeglasses adjusted for the distance between the eyes and the computer screen. Most computer users prefer to position the screen farther from where they normally read. Prescription eyeglasses should be adjusted accordingly.

Take periodic rest breaks. Using a computer requires an unchanging body, head, and eye positions that can be fatiguing. Lubricate the eyes by blinking frequently or using artificial tears (lubricating eye drops). Keep workstations clean to minimize eye irritation from dust.

Minimize light glare by adjusting office lights or using hoods or filters on the video screen. Standard office lighting is too bright for comfortable computer screen viewing.