Answering commonly asked vision health questions

Dr. Marisa Sit is an ophthalmologist and the Director of the Comprehensive Ophthalmology Unit at University Health Network’s Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute. (Photo: UHN)

October 12 is World Sight Day, an annual event to raise awareness about the importance of eye health and to bring attention to vision loss and blindness. To mark the occasion, Dr. Marisa Sit, an ophthalmologist and the Director of the Comprehensive Ophthalmology Unit at UHN’s Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute, discusses a number of topics, including the importance of diet to eye health, how often to get an eye exam and the 20-20-20 rule.

Q: What is the difference between an ophthalmologist, an optometrist and an optician? And how do I know which one I need to visit?

(Dr. Sit) Ophthalmologists are highly trained eye physicians and surgeons. They are licensed medical specialists in vision care, surgery and medical intervention, to help diagnose, treat, and prevent serious eye diseases.

Optometrists are primary health care providers who perform eye exams to check the overall health of the eyes, issue prescriptions for corrective lenses and diagnose eye diseases.

Opticians are licensed professionals trained to design, fit and dispense glasses, contact lenses, low-vision aids and prosthetic ocular devices. They don’t conduct examinations or diagnose individuals.

Generally, an individual will see an optometrist first for an eye examination. Upon completing the exam, the optometrist may refer the patient to an ophthalmologist if additional diagnosis and treatments are needed.

Q: How do I keep my eyes healthy?

Many people understand that having a healthy diet can benefit the heart and other vital organs. What they may not know is that this is also true for the eyes. Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet will also give your eyes the nutrients they need. Some other tips include routine eye exams, regular exercise and protecting the eyes from ultraviolet (UV) rays by wearing sunglasses.

Individuals who spend a lot of time in front of computers or other digital devices should also practice the 20-20-20 rule to prevent eyestrain and protect their eyes. Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something that’s at least 20 feet (six metres) away.

Q: Why is an eye exam important? What would an eye exam detect?

Annual eye exams help to monitor eye health, to make sure you are seeing clearly. For children, eye exams can help to set up success in school. Vision is one of the most important senses for a child’s development; roughly 80 per cent of what children learn is gained through vision.

Eye exams can also help to detect eye diseases, such as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration at an early stage, to help prevent and reduce the risk of permanent vision loss.

Q: Who should get an eye exam and how often should I schedule my eye exam appointment?

Everyone should receive routine eye exams, including children and babies.

Full-term newborns should have their eyes examined by a pediatrician or midwife to check for basic indicators of eye health, such as a red reflex check which examines pupil reflections, ensuring there is no cataract, or other issue, that needs to be managed right away. Premature babies should be seen by a pediatric ophthalmologist at four weeks of age. During the first year of life, at well-baby visits, the child’s primary care physician should check the eyes for basic alignment and repeat the red reflex check.

Between the age of two and three, young children should get an eye exam to check for healthy eye development. By this age, we can start picking up strabismus, a disorder where eyes do not line up properly in the same direction, refractive error, which causes blurriness and other common eye conditions. By age three to five, children should have a full, dilated eye exam. Dilation can help detect refractive error, which if significant and left uncorrected can cause amblyopia, also known as the lazy eye. Depending on the child’s risk factors, they should have a follow-up exam within one to three years. A child may need a full eye exam sooner if there is a family history of eye problems, or if any signs or symptoms are noticed by the parents.

Adults without any known eye diseases should schedule an eye exam every two to three years. For individuals over the age of 65, an annual eye exam is recommended to detect and monitor any age-related eye diseases.

Q: How do I know if I’m at risk of an eye disease? What are some common early symptoms I should look out for?

Some eye diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, are more common among older individuals. However, they may still affect individuals of all ages. Some other common risk factors include systemic diseases such as diabetes and a family history of a certain eye disease.

Some early symptoms one can look out for are sudden changes in eyesight, blurry vision, sensitivity to light and pain in the eye.

Q: Can I do anything about my chances of vision loss?

It is estimated that about 75 per cent of vision loss is preventable or treatable with early intervention. One of the most important factors in preventing vision loss and blindness is to have regular eye exams, which will help to detect and treat diseases early, and reduce the risk of permanent vision loss. In addition, always remember to follow recommendations given by your eye care professionals.

Today, more than 5.5 million Canadians are living with eye diseases, such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts, and this number is expected to double over the next 20 years. Many of these sight-threatening diseases are treatable and vision loss can often be prevented with early intervention.

For more information on eye health, common eye diseases, treatment options and research, visit the UHN’s Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute.

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