Health & Wellness

From pain to floaters: 5 eye symptoms you should never ignore

Considering it’s a marvel of design, the human eye doesn’t get a lot of respect. We wake up, we see (often with help from glasses or contacts) and move on with our lives. Most of us take our sight for granted and see an eye specialist every few years or so.

But there’s a good chance some of us skip that check-up.

photoJakubStepan / Shutterstock
Human eye detail

About half of the estimated 61 million adults in the United States who are at high risk for serious vision loss haven’t visited an ophthalmologist in the past 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 35 percent of adults don’t see an eye doc because their vision is A-OK and they don’t think an exam is necessary.

Here’s the problem: Eye exams not only gauge your vision, but can also provide vital information about your overall health. Many people may have other ailments, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, infectious disease, or even an autoimmune disorder, and may not know it until they get their eyes checked.

Related: Facebook post saves girl's vision as 'glow in the eye' raises alarm

“The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but they can also tell us about a lot of systemic diseases, and the severity of those diseases,” explains Dr. Suber Huang, chief executive of Retina Center of Ohio in Cleveland and chair of the National Institutes of Health National Eye Health Education Program Steering Committee.

The message is straightforward. “Anything that is new in terms of a change in your vision could be potentially worrisome,” says Huang, past president of the American Society of Retina Specialists.

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Vision loss test, other health screenings you can do at home in 60 seconds

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Vision loss test, other health screenings you can do at home in 60 seconds

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Here are just a few eye symptoms that should make you go see an eye doctor pronto.

1. Flashes and floaters

Although most people have experienced floaters, those gnat-like or cobwebby squiggles that appear in your field of vision, a new onset of floaters, which may be accompanied by flashes of light (often described as a lightning streak in the peripheral vision), warrants a quick trip to an ophthalmologist.

You may be experiencing something benign called a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD.) Or you might be experiencing a retinal tear that could lead to a retinal detachment, which is potentially blinding if not fixed quickly.

A PVD is a process of aging (generally after age 50 for most of us and younger if you are near-sighted) in which the vitreous, a gel-like substance that fills your eye and is attached to the retina, begins to shrink and pull away from the retina.

It doesn’t hurt and some people may not even notice any symptoms, which can range from merely annoying to downright anxiety inducing, says Huang.

The bad news is that about 10 percent of people may experience a retinal tear if the vitreous gel separates from the retina with too much force. That tear, which needs to be taken care of ASAP, can generally be fixed right in your doctor’s office with a laser.

Although rare, some people may develop a full-blown retinal detachment, which is considered a big emergency and requires surgery to avoid loss of sight. Retinal tears and detachments don’t hurt either.

If you are diagnosed with a PVD, your doctor will schedule a follow-up visit to make sure no tears have developed.

If floaters and flashes get worse, or if you lose your side vision (think of a curtain being pulled down), see a curtain moving across your field of vision or have a decrease in vision, your doctor will tell you not to wait for that follow-up appointment. Get in now. These are symptoms of tears and detachments.

The good news is the vast majority of people won’t have much trouble with a PVD, aside from learning how to live with floaters for a while, sometimes several months, maybe even longer. The brain will adapt and eventually they will float out of your line of sight.

If you experienced a PVD in one eye, chances are good you’ll get one in your other eye, too.

Related: Hey, four eyes: More education leads to lousy vision

2. Red, teary eyes

Red, teary eyes aren’t always due to a long night out, especially if you wear contacts. You might have keratitis, an infection of the cornea that causes redness, pain, inflammation, discharge and a host of other miserable problems.

When caught early, it can be treated more easily. Wait too long and you could potentially lose your vision.

“I see this every day, people are happily wearing contact lenses, their eyes get irritated, and get more irritated, and by the time they come in, they can have some really bad infections,” says Dr. Randy J. Epstein, professor of medicine in the department of ophthalmology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

If you are having problems like weepy, painful, irritated, light-sensitive, red eyes and you wear contacts, get in to see your doctor now.

Another tip: Don’t sleep in your contacts — ever. “Sleeping in contacts can make a person more prone to infection or scar the cornea, so it’s never a good a good idea to sleep in them even if they are labeled extended wear,” says Epstein.

Related: Vision of health: What your eyes reveal

3. Double vision

Although it can be caused by some benign conditions, until proven otherwise, “double vision is never good,” says Dr. Rebecca Taylor, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

People can experience double vision in one or both eyes. If you have double vision in one eye, it can be due to a corneal problem. If you have double vision in both eyes, which is more common, it means your eyes aren’t working together in the right way. That could be due to a neurological issue, an autoimmune problem or other potentially serious issues.

If you have pain, weakness, slurred speech, along with double vision (or any vision change), go to an emergency department. “If the double vision is new or sudden, you need to be evaluated,” says Taylor.

4. Pupils don’t look the same size

Anisocoria is the technical name for unequal pupil size. Some people who are otherwise healthy may have unequal pupils.

But generally, if you’re an adult and one of your pupils — that black dot right in the middle of your eye — becomes larger or smaller, and you haven’t used eye drops, call your doctor.

Unequal pupil size can be a sign of serious problems. “It could be nothing or it could be an aneurysm, a tumor, a brain infection or a sign of a stroke,” says Taylor. “The point is to get in so we can figure it out.”

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5. Eye pain

Your eyes should never hurt, so any pain should be taken seriously.

Although eye pain may have a very obvious cause, such as injury, there are other problems that could be going on that range from benign to potentially blinding conditions like optic neuropathy or angle-closure glaucoma.

Be especially careful around fireworks. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, firework injuries are on the rise with nearly 1,300 treated in emergency rooms in 2014, up from 600 in 2012.

Eye injuries caused by fireworks are almost always serious. “You can’t outrun a bottle rocket,” says Taylor, adding that injuries can include burns, abrasions, and eye ruptures.

If fireworks are legal in your area, take some common sense precautions like keeping them away from kids and wearing safety glasses.

If you do get hurt, go to an emergency room. Don’t rub, rinse, or apply pressure. Don’t ever try to remove anything that’s in your eye. Leave that to the medical professional.

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