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Overview - Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes. It's caused by high blood sugar levels damaging the back of the eye (retina). It can cause blindness if left undiagnosed and untreated. It can take several years for diabetic retinopathy to threaten your sight.

To minimise the risk of this happening, you should:

  • make sure you control your blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol
  • attend diabetic eye screening - to pick up and treat any problems early on

Your GP or healthcare professional can refer you for diabetic retina screening by calling freephone 1800 45 45 55.

Diabetic retinopathy screening

How diabetes can affect the eyes

The retina is the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye. It converts light into electrical signals. The signals are sent to the brain which turns them into the images you see.

The retina needs a constant supply of blood. It receives this through a network of tiny blood vessels. Over time, a high blood sugar level can damage these blood vessels in 3 main stages:

Stage 1: Background retinopathy

Tiny bulges develop in the blood vessels. These may bleed slightly but do not usually affect your vision.

Stage 2: Pre-proliferative retinopathy

More severe and widespread changes affect the blood vessels. These include more significant bleeding into the eye.

Stage 3: Proliferative retinopathy

Scar tissue and new blood vessels, which are weak and bleed easily, develop on the retina. This can result in some loss of vision.

If a problem with your eyes is picked up early, lifestyle changes and treatment can stop it getting worse.

Risk of diabetic retinopathy

Anyone with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.

You're at a greater risk if you:

  • have had diabetes for a long time
  • have a persistently high blood glucose (blood sugar) level
  • have high blood pressure
  • have high cholesterol
  • develop a serious illness such as sepsis or pneumonia
  • are pregnant
  • are of Asian or Afro-Caribbean background

Reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy or help stop it getting worse. Keep your blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels under control.

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy

You will not usually notice diabetic retinopathy in the early stages. It does not tend to have any obvious symptoms until it's more advanced.

Early signs of the condition can be picked up during diabetic eye screening.

Urgent advice: Contact your GP or diabetes care team immediately if you experience:

  • gradually worsening vision
  • sudden vision loss
  • shapes floating in your field of vision (floaters)
  • blurred or patchy vision
  • eye pain or redness

These symptoms do not mean you have diabetic retinopathy. But it's important to get them checked out.

Do not wait until your next screening appointment.

Diabetic eye screening

People with diabetes aged 12 years and older are regularly invited to attend screening.

Screening is offered because:

  • diabetic retinopathy does not tend to cause any symptoms in the early stages
  • the condition can cause permanent blindness if not diagnosed and treated promptly
  • screening can detect problems in your eyes before they start to affect your vision
  • if problems are caught early, treatment can help prevent or reduce vision loss

The screening test involves examining the back of the eyes and taking photographs. Depending on your result, you may be advised to:

  • return for another appointment a year later
  • attend more regular appointments
  • discuss treatment options with a specialist

More about diabetic eye screening

Reduce your risk of diabetic retinopathy

You can reduce your risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, or help stop it getting worse, by:

  • controlling your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • taking your diabetes medication as prescribed
  • attending all your screening appointments
  • getting medical advice quickly if you notice any changes to your vision
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • eating a healthy balanced diet, exercising regularly and stopping smoking

How to prevent diabetic retinopathy

Treatments for diabetic retinopathy

Treatment is only necessary if screening detects your vision is at risk.

If the condition has not reached this stage you should continue to manage your diabetes.

The main treatments for more advanced diabetic retinopathy are:

  • laser treatment
  • injections of medication into your eyes
  • an operation to remove blood or scar tissue from your eyes

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

Page last reviewed: 17 November 2020
Next review due: 17 November 2023

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.