Is It Cataracts or Glaucoma?

August 17th, 2023

Millions of adults experience vision loss as they age, with cataracts and glaucoma ranking among the leading causes of this impairment worldwide. There are a few similarities between the conditions; however, there are many significant differences. 

What Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is damage to the optic nerve due to the buildup of fluid pressure in the eye. This pressure is called intraocular pressure (IOP). Approximately 3 million Americans have glaucoma, and many are unaware of it. There are several types of glaucoma; open-angle glaucoma is the most common and affects nine out of every 10 people with glaucoma in the U.S.

Open-angle glaucoma is typically slow to progress, often developing without any initial symptoms. It’s most often noticed by the darkening or loss of peripheral vision. It’s not yet known what causes glaucoma, and it cannot be prevented. Individuals over the age of 60 (especially if Hispanic or Latino), African Americans over age 40, and individuals with a family history of glaucoma are at higher risk of developing open-angle glaucoma. A comprehensive dilated eye exam is the only way to diagnose the condition.

There is no cure for glaucoma, but early intervention can slow or stop its progression and prevent further vision loss. Treatment depends on the type of glaucoma and how far it has progressed. Daily medicated eye drops are prescribed for many patients with open-angle glaucoma. These drops can lower IOP and prevent damage to the nerve. Other patients may require laser treatment or surgery to enable the fluid to drain from the eye. Unfortunately, vision loss from glaucoma is typically permanent and cannot be reversed.

What Are Cataracts?

Cataracts refer to the clouding of the eye’s natural lens, which focuses light onto the retina for clear images. Proteins in the lens break down with age and form small clumps, causing blurry vision and other impairments as the cataract continues to develop. Approximately half of all Americans age 75 and older have suffered from cataracts. 

Cataracts typically develop slowly over the years, sometimes remaining unnoticed for decades. Environmental, lifestyle, and genetic factors can increase the risk of cataracts. Early symptoms may include cloudy vision, color changes, double vision, light sensitivity, difficulty driving at night, and frequent changes to your corrective lens prescription. 

Cataracts are diagnosed using a visual acuity test, slit-lamp examination, or retinal exam. They can be managed in the early stages by using bright lights when reading, wearing anti-glare sunglasses, and updating eyeglass prescriptions. However, when the cataracts are far enough advanced, vision can be fully restored only with cataract surgery. Cataract surgery is safe, effective, and most often performed on an outpatient basis. The cloudy lens is simply replaced with a clear, artificial one.

Glaucoma vs. Cataracts: The Main Differences

Glaucoma and cataracts both typically affect adults over the age of 60, are among the leading causes of blindness in the world, and most often progress slowly — but their similarities end there. In general, the differences between glaucoma and cataracts are:

  • How they affect the eye: Cataracts are formed by the breakdown of proteins on the lens of the eye, while glaucoma results in damage to the optic nerve due to fluid buildup. 
  • Initial symptoms: Blurry or clouded vision is typically the first symptom of cataracts, while the loss of peripheral vision is often experienced first with open-angle glaucoma. 
  • Surgical procedures: Cataract surgery replaces the eye’s natural lens with a new artificial lens. Glaucoma surgery, including minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS) or trabeculectomy,  reduces IOP by enabling fluid in the eye to drain more effectively. 
  • Treatment outcomes: Vision can often be fully restored with cataract surgery, but vision loss from glaucoma is typically permanent.  

Talk to the Team at Swagel Wootton Eye Institute

Changes to your vision can be frightening, frustrating, and difficult to understand. If you’re wondering if you may have glaucoma or cataracts, your symptoms may be your best initial indicator. In any case, it’s important to see an eye doctor immediately. The Swagel Wootton Eye Institute experts are here to offer support and guidance to help you see as clearly as possible. We’re proud to offer the most advanced technology and are committed to your safety, comfort, and quality outcomes. Request your appointment today with our team of world-class doctors.