What Is Diabetic Retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in adults. It happens when diabetes harms blood vessels inside the eye. These weak vessels leak fluid into an area of the eye called the retina. Weak new vessels can break and bleed into the retina. Old vessels can leak and cause swelling. These vessels can damage areas of the retina, causing blurry, distorted vision.

Cross section of eye showing vitreous and retina. Front view of healthy retina showing blood vessels. Front view of retina with diabetic retinopathy.

What causes diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetes is the cause of this eye disease. Over time, diabetes makes blood vessels weaken all over the body, including in the eyes. Poor blood sugar control can make retinopathy worse. So can smoking, high cholesterol, or poorly controlled high blood pressure. Pregnancy can also cause retinopathy to worsen. Diabetic retinopathy happens more often in Hispanics and in African Americans. 

What are the symptoms?

You can have diabetic retinopathy without knowing it. Usually, there is no pain and no outward sign. Over time, you may notice gradual blurring or some vision loss. Some people have trouble seeing at night. or see spots or floaters. Symptoms may come and go. Early treatment and good control of risk factors may help prevent vision loss or blindness.

What you can do

Have your eyes examined regularly by an eye specialist. Your healthcare provider will tell you when and how often you need these exams. You can also help control your diabetes through exercise, diet, and medicine, as instructed by your healthcare provider. These same steps may also help control diabetic retinopathy.