Living with diabetic retinopathy
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common eye disease among people with diabetes. It is most common in people with type 1 diabetes, though many people with type 2 diabetes develop diabetic retinopathy, too. Approximately one in two people with type 1 diabetes and one in three people with type 2 diabetes will have some diabetic retinopathy. One in ten people with diabetes will have retinopathy that poses a threat to their eyesight (Source: BMJ). The duration of diabetes is important as retinopathy becomes more likely over time.
Although it can lead to sight loss in advanced stages, regular eye screening can detect the condition early. For most people, having regular eye exams and keeping your diabetes well managed will make a big difference, and you may not need treatment or experience vision loss.
If you experience sight loss, there is lots of support available to help you adapt and make the most of the vision you do have.
Managing your diabetic retinopathy
Although many people with diabetes develop diabetic retinopathy, not everyone will experience vision impairment. By managing your diabetes and following advice from your GP and diabetes care team, you can help lower the risk factors for the condition getting worse.
If you've been diagnosed with early-stage retinopathy (known as background retinopathy or nonproliferative retinopathy), you might be able to help prevent it from getting worse.
Following a healthy lifestyle can help, including:
- Keeping to a healthy diet. Get information about eating well with diabetes, or speak to your GP or diabetes nurse for support.
- Managing your weight. The NHS has more information about this.
- Being active and doing regular exercise. It's easier to do this if you find an activity you enjoy, and you don't have to spend lots of money.
- Getting support to stop smoking. There's some research to show that smoking can worsen diabetic retinopathy (Source: Patient).
Monitoring your diabetes
High blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure can make diabetic retinopathy worse, so good diabetes management is important.
Keep up to date with your diabetes care, such as regular blood glucose tests to know your blood sugar levels. Your GP or diabetes nurse can help you with monitoring your cholesterol and blood pressure. You may be able to check these at home as well. Find out more about managing your risk of diabetic retinopathy.
Regular eye screening
Everyone aged 12 and older with diabetes should have regular eye examination screening at least once a year.
In between appointments, it's also good to be aware of changes to your eyes. Get prompt medical advice for any eye problems. The kind of symptoms to be aware of include:
- Your vision getting worse and blurry vision
- Seeing floaters or dark spots moving across your vision
- Eye pain or redness
- Sudden loss of vision
Some people will need to take medicine as well as managing their diet and lifestyle.
If your diabetic retinopathy gets to an advanced stage, with a chance of vision impairment, you may need treatment. This could be laser treatment, eye injections, or eye surgery. Find out more about the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy and the treatment options.
Diabetic retinopathy and driving
If your diabetic retinopathy is at an early stage and your vision hasn't been affected, you will probably be able to carry on driving. The condition tends to progress slowly, and your regular diabetic eye screening should detect any changes.
If your diabetic retinopathy progresses, and you might need to stop driving, it's a good idea to think ahead. Explore your local public transport choices, talk to friends and family, and get support from our Guide Line for getting about with a vision impairment.
Support for diabetic retinopathy
You might wonder how you'll cope with changes when you've been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, especially if you have a later stage of the disease when there is a greater chance of sight loss.
There's lots of practical advice to help manage changes to your sight, and we share some tips below. But talking to someone can also help you deal with the sometimes difficult feelings that come with the diagnosis.
Making the most of your vision
There are lots of practical ways to make the most of the vision you do have. Strategies vary depending on whether your side vision, central vision or both, are affected but include:
- Anti-glare glasses or coloured lenses help with bright light and using different types of lighting.
- Low vision aids like magnifiers to help you better see details.
- Using new skills and ways to manage day to day life at home.
- Ideas for managing your personal care with sight loss.
Your eye specialist or clinic can refer you for a low vision assessment (LVA) to get tailored advice and support as well. And local social services offer support for keeping safe at home and getting around safely if sight loss affects your mobility.
Registering as visually impaired
If your sight loss from diabetic retinopathy is significant, it may be worth registering as vision impaired. It's entirely your decision, but being registered as either sight impaired (previously called partially sighted) or severely sight impaired (formerly known as blind) can help you get extra support, including financial benefits such as:
- Support for using public transport and parking
- Tax allowance
- Personal Independence Payment (PIP) (previously Disability Living Allowance (DLA))
Frequently asked questions
Get in touch
You can contact us to find out about services and support tailored to your individual needs.
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.