11 Signs Your Eyes Could Be in Danger

Some eye symptoms indicate minor conditions. Others could be signs of real trouble.

Most symptoms in your eye signal something relatively minor and treatable—like allergies or dry eye syndrome. Others can be more serious. Macular degeneration and glaucoma, for instance, can start to harm your vision without you realizing it until it’s too late. Even the minor problems could grow severe if you don’t take care of them. To preempt the normal changes that come with aging, Matthew Gorski, MD, an ophthalmologist with Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York recommends getting comprehensive annual eye exams starting at age 40, or sooner if you have a family history of eye disease or if you have symptoms. Here are some vision symptoms that could indicate trouble:

Grittiness

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A gritty feeling in your eye could be a sign you have dry eye. You may also have intermittent stabbing pain, glare around lights, sensitivity to light and watery eyes, says Stephanie Marioneaux, MD, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “If you’re staring at computer screens all day, reading, driving, you’re set up for dry eye,” she adds. Approaching menopause can also contribute. “If you think that you have dry eye, this is not a do-it-yourself thing,” says Dr. Marioneaux. “You do want to be evaluated because there are many options that we can offer you but if you wait you may have missed a window of opportunity to get some effective treatment.” Read about other symptoms of dry eye.

Flashers and floatersfloaters eye squiggly lines vision Sarah2/Shutterstock

Those spots that float past your vision from time to time are called floaters and they usually vanish as soon as you try to focus on them. “Floaters are often a normal symptom of the aging eye, but any sudden onset or change in floaters, flashing lights, a shadow or gray curtain in the peripheral or side vision could be a sign of a retinal tear or retinal detachment,” says Dr. Gorski. The retina is the layer of tissue at the back of your eye that receives light signals. It can pull away from the back of your eye usually due to aging or an eye injury, according to the National Eye Institute. If you experience these symptoms, get emergency help right away. Without adequate treatment, you could lose your vision.

Halos and glare

closeup of woman eyes faceIrina Bg / Shutterstock

“The more birthdays you have, the denser your lens will be,” says Meredith R. Klifto, MD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. That’s when your once-clear lens starts to turn cloudy, causing a cataract and making it difficult to see. Symptoms can include seeing halos around lights, glare, cloudiness, light sensitivity, blurry vision, having trouble driving at night, double vision in one eye and dim vision, says Dr. Gorski. A 20-minute outpatient procedure can replace the cloudy lens with a new one, not only getting rid of the cataract but often restoring good vision as well. (Here are 7 signs you may have eye cataracts.)

Pain

“Eye pain is a very non-specific symptom, but is almost always a sign of disease,” says Dr. Gorski. The severity of the pain may be a clue as to its cause. “Eye pain caused by corneal ulcers is usually moderate to severe and is often accompanied by light sensitivity, the feeling that something is in the eye, tearing, burning, and decreased vision,” he adds. Contact lenses that aren’t properly cared for can cause corneal ulcers. If you have this type of pain, take out the lenses and see a doctor. Other possible causes of pain include eye injuries or eye infections, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Sensitivity to light

Some reasons you may be squinting in light are cataracts, infections, and migraines. Light sensitivity can also be a sign of ocular herpes, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Ocular herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the same strain that normally causes cold sores (genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2), say the experts at the Michigan Medicine’s Kellogg Eye Center. (Genital herpes is usually caused by HSV-2). It can lie dormant for months or years then reappear. Creams and medications can help when the virus is active, says Dr. Klifto. There may be ways to prevent herpes outbreaks.

Watery eyes

Watery or teary eyes can be a sign you have allergies, as can sensitivity to light. Allergies are often seasonal as you react to the pollen in the air. There are also indoor allergens like dust mites and reactions to irritants like smoke or perfume, according to the American College of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology. Your best course is to try to avoid the allergen, be it pollen or pet dander. After that, you can try artificial tears and decongestant eye drops (not the kind that say “keep the red out”). Oral decongestants may help but they may backfire by causing dry eye. Find out about more allergy remedies.

Blurry vision

There are many possible causes of blurry vision. You may need glasses or contact lenses, something which can happen at any age. Or you may be developing presbyopia, which is the difficulty seeing things up close that comes with age. More serious causes include glaucoma and macular degeneration, both of which are associated with aging and that potentially can cause blindness. If you’re experiencing blurry vision—or any ocular symptoms that get in the way of daily living and especially driving—get yourself to a doctor so he or she can determine the cause and set up treatments. Some causes of blurry vision, like cataracts, can actually be cured.

Loss of peripheral vision

Often called the “silent thief of sight,” glaucoma is a condition associated with advancing age. “At first it is asymptomatic, but over time, damage to the optic nerve causes loss of peripheral vision that is irreversible,” says Dr. Gorski. This is yet another reason to start having routine eye exams starting at age 40 or earlier if you have symptoms or risk factors. Make sure you get a full dilation exam, advises Dr. Klifto. That’s when the doctor gives you drops to make the pupils bigger so he or she can see further into the back of your eye. There are treatments for glaucoma but no cure.

Wavy lines

Another major cause of vision loss is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The disease affects the central portion of your vision, says Dr. Gorski, and “symptoms can include blurry vision, wavy lines, central black spots, or visual distortions with images appearing smaller or larger.” Like glaucoma, macular degeneration is irreversible, though it can be treated with vitamin and mineral supplements, injections, and laser therapy, according to the National Eye Institute. It is also diagnosed with a dilated eye exam. “Anyone experiencing these symptoms should see an eye doctor right away,” says Dr. Gorski. Here are ways to lower your risk of eye diseases.

Loss of vision

Loss of vision is an indication that you need to get to an ophthalmologist (not an optometrist) or the emergency room right away. At the top of the list of potential causes is a stroke, says Dr. Marioneaux. The damage from ischemic strokes (those that are caused by a clot) can be minimized by prompt treatment with clot-dissolving drugs, usually within a window of three to four-and-a-half hours, according to the American College of Cardiology. Loss of vision could also be a detached retina, vascular occlusion (a blocked blood vessel), or in rare cases, a brain tumor, says Dr. Marioneaux. Here are some other signs you may be having a stroke.

Pain, nausea, vomiting, and abnormal pupil size

The most common type of glaucoma (about 90 percent of cases) is open-angle glaucoma, says the Glaucoma Research Foundation. The less common type is angle-closure glaucoma and this could result in a severe emergency situation. In angle-closure glaucoma, “the eye outflow channels are more prone to be closed off,” explains Dr. Klifto. Eye pressure can skyrocket resulting in severe blurriness, pain, nausea, and vomiting, and abnormal pupil size. In this case, you need to get to the emergency room to prevent permanent vision loss.

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Medically reviewed by Mark Scroggs, MD, on December 18, 2019