Diabetes can cause "diabetic retinopathy", the most common eye disease affecting 500,000 Canadians. Diabetic retinopathy can lead to vision changes or blindness. With good blood sugar control, regular eye exams and early treatment, the risk of eye damage can be reduced. 

We are pleased to announce that Diabetes Canada and the Canadian Association of Optometrists have partnered to help educate people with diabetes about retinopathy.

How can diabetes affect my eyes?

Having too much glucose (sugar) in your blood can damage the blood vessels in the retina, leading to diabetic retinopathy. The retina is the tissue lining the back of the eye and works like a film in a camera that helps you see. Changes to your eye with diabetic retinopathy can reduce your vision.

Why should I get an eye exam?

Diabetic retinopathy develops over time and often goes unnoticed until vision loss occurs. All people with diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) are at risk for diabetic retinopathy. Regular eye exams are very important to detect changes early, even before you see any difference in your vision.

How often is an eye exam recommended?

If your vision changes, you should go see your eye doctor immediately. Symptoms can include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Flashes of light in the field of vision
  • Sudden loss of vision
  • Blotches or spots in vision

If your vision is doing well, you should get an eye exam once a year, unless otherwise directed by your ophthalmologist or optometrist. The possibility of eye complications can be greatly reduced with routine examinations. Many problems can be treated with greater success when caught early.

Remember, you may not be aware of changes to your vision. Diabetic retinopathy can worsen in pregnancy, so it is important to get a diabetic eye exam before getting pregnant and while pregnant.

About the eye exam

During the eye exam, an ophthalmologist or optometrist puts drops into your eyes to dilate (enlarge) your pupils. Once your eyes are dilated, your eye-care provider examines your eyes using a special magnifying lens that provides a clear view of the back of your eye. Dilated eye exams are a safe and effective part of your diabetes management.

Contact your eye-care professional directly for an appointment or have your health-care provider refer you for an eye exam. A diabetic eye exam may be covered by your provincial health plan and be available at no cost to you. You can confirm this with your diabetes care provider or when making an appointment.

If you happen to have diabetic retinopathy, very effective treatments are available. Your eye-care specialist will explain these to you.

How can I reduce my risk of diabetic retinopathy?

To prevent disease progression, people with diabetes should manage their levels of blood sugar, blood pressure and blood cholesterol. Research has shown that keeping blood sugar levels within target leads to fewer eye problems. People with diabetes should follow the ABCDEs to reduce the risk of eye damage.

A – A1C – Most people should aim for an A1C of seven per cent* or less by managing blood sugars well. A1C is a blood test that is a measure of your average blood sugar level over the past 120 days.

B – Blood pressure – Control your blood pressure to less than 130/80* mmHg.

C – Cholesterol – The LDL (bad) cholesterol target is less than 2.0* mmol/L.

D – Drugs to protect your heart – Speak with your health-care team about medications.

E – Exercise & Eating – Regular physical activity, healthy eating, and maintain a healthy body weight.

S – Screening for complications – Ask your health-care team about tests for your heart, feet, kidneys, and eyes.

S – Smoking cessation – Stop smoking and and seek support for help with quitting.

S – Self management, stress, and other barriers – Set goals for yourself to reach the targets and live well with diabetes, such as managing stress effectively.

* Discuss your target values with your health-care team. Note that A1C targets for pregnant women, older adults and children 12 years of age and under are different

For more information about diabetic retinopathy, visit the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

To find a CAO optometrist in your area, visit the Canadian Association of Optometrists.

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