Diseases Your Eye Doctor Can Spot

By:    Medically Reviewed: Tom Iarocci, MD   Published: July 15, 2014

Regularly having a thorough eye exam can help doctors detect numerous diseases, including lupus, diabetes and high cholesterol.

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One of the most important things you can do to protect your eyesight is to see your ophthalmologist regularly.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology advises that every adult, even those without signs or risk factors for eye disease, should have a baseline comprehensive eye evaluation at age 40.

If your eyes are indeed the windows to your soul, then your annual eye exam is a reflection of your overall health status, because the eye doctor has some of the most sophisticated imaging microscopes in medical care. An eye doctor is trained to search for barely discernable spots, blood dots and other indications of disease.

 

Autoimmune Disorders

 

What the doctor sees: Very dry and irritated eyes, cloudiness and blurriness, and extreme light sensitivity.

Most people know that an eye exam also will include checking for signs of glaucoma and other common vision issues. A routine eye exam allows the doctor to see your retina, the living light sensor at the back of the eye, so your eye doctor also can see signs of inflammation in the retina that may point to an autoimmune condition such as lupus. Other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis can also involve different structures within the human eye; many of them are bathed in transparent liquid so the doctor can see a healthy lens, cornea and retina quite clearly.

If your eye doctor does detect possible problems, don’t panic. The impact of autoimmune disorders on your eyes can be reduced with appropriate medications, as well as early detection.

 

High Cholesterol, Familial Hyperlipidemias

 

What the doctor sees: Thin white or gray rings around the edge of the corneas in younger adults can suggest high cholesterol and triglycerides. Cholesteroal deposits, which are the more-obvious yellow plaque that can be seen with the naked eye in and around the eyelids, indicate xanthelasma palpebrum, and may or may not be associated with hyperlipidemia. Yellow plaques and blockage of retinal vessels may be seen in some cases and are associated with high cholesterol.

Although it’s uncommon for the average person to have eye problems caused specifically by high cholesterol, your eye doctor can see evidence of them, especially when the levels are extremely high, such as in familial cases, or when a piece of cholesterol plaque moves into one of the blood vessels of the eye.

 

Symptoms of Diabetes

 

What the doctor sees: A routine exam detects traces of blood and other yellowish fluids seeping out of fragile vessels in the retinas, a sign of diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. 

Vision loss is caused by blood vessels in the retina that leak fluid into the retina, or abnormal blood vessels may start to grow on the surface of the retina. Both conditions affect vision and can lead to blindness. Since diabetic retinopathy is a degenerative eye disease, meaning it can grow worse over time, ophthalmologists send many patients directly to an endocrinologist to check their blood sugars; it’s not uncommon, especially when a patient has not been to a primary care physician in a while.

Ideally diabetes is found before there is diabetic retinopathy, but a good eye doctor can see evidence of several conditions and diseases, like lupus and diabetes, sometimes even before your primary care physician is able to find them. (Your eye doctor also will check for signs of glaucoma or cataracts, which can suggest diabetes.)

 

Your Eye Doctor Can Detect: Thyroid Conditions

 

What the doctor sees: Bulging and very inflamed eyes, significant tearing up, and even a slight bulging out along the orbs of the eye, indicating Graves’ eye disease. Graves’ disease and hyperthyroidism develop most often in women between the ages of 20 and 40. Graves’ disease doesn’t always have symptoms and doesn’t always affect the eyes, but when it does, it’s certainly another autoimmune disorder that can be spotted by a trusted eye doctor

Thyroid hormones control vital functions within your body, including digestion, fat metabolism, body temperature and heart rate, so an underactive or overactive thyroid has major repercussions in the body – including vision and general eye health.

Next Steps

For Patients and Family Caregivers:

  • Arrange regular eye exams for yourself and your family, and communicate any concerns with your doctor.
  • Don’t disregard the power of a camera flash. If you notice a white or golden glow in the eyes of anyone you’re photographing, call an eye doctor immediately. This white glow, which can be detected in flash photos, could be an early sign of 15 eye diseases and cancers, some of which can be fatal. Take California Mom Megan Webber’s story as an example. Photos of her 5-year-old son Benjamin showed a “golden glow” in his left eye. After a family member informed Webber that this glow could be a sign of a tumor, she immediately made an appointment with Benjamin’s pediatrician, who then referred the family to an eye specialist. After a series of scans, Webber was stunned to learn her son not only was legally blind in his left eye, but he also had Coat’s disease, a rare eye disorder that can cause partial or total blindness. Fortunately, doctors caught Benjamin’s eye condition early and didn’t have to surgically remove his eye, but let Webber’s story be an inspiration. Act early if you notice an abnormal, white reflection in the eyes of anyone you photograph. To find out more information about this glow and Webber’s story, visit http://www.knowtheglow.org/.       
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