Often, there are no symptoms in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. Vision may seem unchanged until the disease becomes severe. Eventually, the vision of a person with diabetic retinopathy may become blurred or blocked entirely. But even in more advanced cases the disease may progress without symptoms for a long time. That is why regular eye exams are so important for people with diabetes.
Early treatment of serious diabetic retinopathy can improve the chance of saving your sight. For some people, diabetic retinopathy may be one of the first signs that they have diabetes. Adults and children who have diabetes should have a dilated eye exam at least once a year.
If you have diabetic retinopathy, you may need to visit an eye doctor more often than once a year. This helps the doctor monitor the disease and determine the best treatment options. The eye doctor can decide if you need an eye exam more often.
At a complete eye exam, called a dilated eye exam, the eye doctor widens the pupil of the eye with eye drops to allow a closer look at the inside of the eye. This exam may not be part of an eye exam for a new pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Dilated Eye Exam
Credit: National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health
The blood vessels in the eyes cannot be distinguished from the surrounding structure of the eye in conventional imaging techniques. Doctors can however document potential damage caused by diabetic retinopathy by injecting a substance that "lights up" the veins. This simple procedure provides a clear picture of the retinal blood vessels for diagnosis.