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Do I Have Cataracts or Glaucoma?

Posted on November 01, 2021 by Glaucoma Research Foundation
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Glaucoma and cataracts are two of the most common vision-threatening conditions and are leading causes of blindness. Yet, while many people know these conditions exist, they don’t always understand how they differ and their threats to your vision if left untreated. In addition, while it’s possible to have either of these conditions at any age, they are most often associated with aging.

Some people have both conditions, while others may only have one. But one isn’t worse than the other—they are different conditions triggered by various factors, each with varying levels of severity. Both eye conditions are treatable, however, especially if caught early.

What Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of conditions that affects the optic nerve. It happens when a fluid, called aqueous humor, builds up in the eye and causes an increase in eye pressure, known as intraocular pressure (IOP). It can occur when there is either an overproduction of aqueous humor or the tissues through which the liquid drains (your trabecular meshwork) become blocked. High IOP causes damage to the optic nerve, which, in turn, causes glaucoma.

There are two main categories of glaucoma.

Primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of glaucoma. Gradually, the eye has trouble draining fluid, which leads to a build-up of eye pressure that damages the optic nerve. However, because it’s painless and doesn’t cause any vision changes right away, primary open-angle glaucoma may go undetected. That’s why regular eye exams are needed to detect any early optic nerve damage.

Although there are usually no noticeable symptoms, in advanced stages, you might notice:

  • Blind spots or patches in your peripheral (side) or central vision, in one or both eyes
  • Tunnel vision

Angle-closure glaucoma happens when an individual’s iris is very close and blocks off the area for fluid drainage in the eye. The space in between is called the eye’s drainage angle (the part of the eye that helps drain fluid and maintain normal intraocular pressure). The closure of this space can be gradual or happen suddenly. People with gradual angle-closure glaucoma may not notice any symptoms.

When eye fluid suddenly can’t pass through the drainage, eye pressure increases sharply, with a high risk of blindness. If that occurs, you must seek immediate help from an ophthalmologist. Asians and those with farsightedness are at a higher risk of this condition.

Typical symptoms might include:

  • Eye pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Seeing halos around lights
  • Redness of the eye
     

What Are Cataracts?

Cataracts are very common, particularly as you age, formed when the crystalline lens inside your eye becomes clouded with proteins. The lens allows light to enter your eye and project images to your retina at the back of your eye.

Vision loss might not be noticeable at first, but as cataracts develop, patients experience blurry vision, glare, and increased difficulty seeing up close or in low light. Cataracts can also cause you to have difficulty doing everyday activities, such as reading.

While cataracts most often occur naturally, they can also result from an injury to the eye or post-operation for a separate eye condition, such as glaucoma.

Typical symptoms of cataracts include:

  • Blurry or cloudy vision
  • Poor night vision (night blindness)
  • Seeing colors as faded
  • Feeling of lights being too bright (lamps, sun, headlights)
  • Seeing halos around lights
  • Seeing double (may go away as a cataract gets bigger)
  • Frequent changes to your glasses prescription
     

How Are Glaucoma and Cataracts Similar?

The most important similarity between glaucoma and cataracts is that early detection and management are key to managing both conditions. With glaucoma, early detection is vital to prevent vision loss. With cataracts, early detection ensures your doctor can monitor the progress of your cataracts and recommend cataract surgery when the time is right. If left untreated, both conditions can result in blindness.

Another similarity is that surgery is a treatment option for both glaucoma and cataracts. However, while surgery is the only treatment option for cataracts, glaucoma has multiple other treatment options.

How Are Glaucoma and Cataracts Different?

  • Glaucoma and cataracts affect two different areas of the eyes. Glaucoma involves eye pressure and affects the optic nerve, and cataracts involve the breakdown of proteins and affect the lens. As a result, the conditions differ in several ways.
  • One significant difference between glaucoma and cataracts is that vision loss due to cataracts can be reversed with surgery but cannot be reversed in glaucoma patients.
  • The surgery procedures are used to perform two completely different functions. Cataract surgery removes the lens and replaces it with an artificial lens; glaucoma surgery aims to lower eye pressure, usually by opening up the blocked canals preventing fluid drainage, or by creating separate drainages to the outside of the eye.
  • Cataracts are painless and take place over time. However, glaucoma can be either slow and subtle or quick and painful, depending on the type of glaucoma and severity.
  • Cataracts are not considered an urgent medical condition. However, early detection and treatment are crucial in glaucoma, especially for angle-closure glaucoma.

Understanding how these two conditions affect your vision and life can help your eye doctor detect your situation early.

There are so many opportunities available for you to help accelerate the teams of dedicated scientists to continue their groundbreaking research on the journey to find a cure for glaucoma. Your donations, whether you donate cash or stock, create a fundraising event, or donate a vehicle or boat, will give hope to those living with glaucoma. Even simply sharing the message with friends, family, and associates can help.

This article was reviewed for medical accuracy by Shan Lin, MD.

Last reviewed on November 01, 2021

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