Diabetic retinopathy symptoms and treatment

Diabetic retinopathy is a diabetic eye disease. It can happen to anyone living with diabetes, but there are risk factors, such as persistently high blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Diabetic eye screening can detect this complication of diabetes early. With the help of lifestyle changes, medication, or treatment if needed, most people with the condition won't experience sight loss.

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Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy

You might not experience noticeable symptoms with early stages of diabetic retinopathy, although screening tests can detect changes at the back of the eye. 

Later stages of diabetic retinopathy can lead to some sight loss or even severe vision loss. There is also an increased chance of other eye conditions at this stage, including retinal detachment and glaucoma

Some of the symptoms that can happen at a more advanced stage include:

  • Seeing floaters or dark spots moving across your vision
  • Seeing flashing lights in your vision
  • Noticing your vision getting worse, especially blurry vision
  • Pain or redness in the eyes
  • A sudden loss of vision 

Diabetic retinopathy can damage the outer area of the retina at the back of the eye, the macula at the centre, or both. The retina processes light and sends signals to the brain, which produces our vision. The macula provides our central vision, which we use for seeing fine details. This is why diabetic retinopathy, if advanced, can lead to vision problems and sometimes sight loss. 

If you experience symptoms, it's important to get help straight away rather than waiting for your next appointment. Speak to your GP, diabetes team, or call 111. You may be referred to an ophthalmologist (a specialist eye doctor). 

Diabetic retinopathy diagnosis

If you are diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, you'll be told what stage of the condition you have. 

Your diagnosis will depend on the type of changes that have happened in the eye:

Diabetic eye screening   

Regular diabetic eye screening helps detect changes to your eyes as early as possible. Anyone over the age of 12 with diabetes should have diabetic eye screening appointments at least once a year.

At your appointment, you'll have an eyesight test and a dilated eye examination. You'll be given eye drops to dilate your pupils. Detailed pictures are taken of the back of your eyes, which can show changes to the retina before you have any other symptoms.

You might have a test called optical coherence tomography (OCT) when a special camera is used to create a detailed image of the retina. It's not an invasive test; you just look into the machine for a few seconds.

Sometimes you may need a test called fluorescein angiography. A dye is injected into your arm, which then shows in the small blood vessels of your eye. Images are taken of changes to the blood vessels caused by diabetic retinopathy. 

Diabetic retinopathy treatments

With early stages of diabetic retinopathy, the focus is on managing your diabetes. Getting your blood glucose level, high cholesterol and high blood pressure under control can help limit the risk of the condition getting worse.

If your diabetic retinopathy has reached a stage where there could be a risk to your sight, you may need treatment.

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

If you have diabetes, you can do things to help lower your risk of diabetic retinopathy and stop it from getting worse if you do have it.

Following a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent diabetic retinopathy so it's important to keep your blood glucose levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure under control.

Some people also need to take medicine to help manage their diabetes. Other ways to help manage the risk of getting diabetic retinopathy include:

  • Monitoring your blood sugar levels.
  • Going for your regular diabetic eye screening appointment.
  • Getting help straight away if you notice any changes to your vision.

Frequently asked questions

Medically reviewed by: The Royal College of Ophthalmologists on 28/07/2022

Edited by: Nick Astbury FRCS FRCOphth FRCP
Clinical Associate Professor

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists champions excellence in the practice of ophthalmology and is the only professional membership body for medically qualified ophthalmologists. The RCOphth is unable to offer direct advice to patients. If you’re concerned about the health of your eyes, you should seek medical advice from your GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist.

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