Cataracts: what are they and how do you treat them?

The Queen had surgery in May on an eye to remove a cataract - so here’s what they are and what can be done to treat them.

Cataracts - do you actually know what they are and what causes them?

Normally associated with old age, when our eyesight tends to deteriorate, cataracts can leave vision blurred and cloudy.

The majority of sufferers are over the age of 60, but the condition can start earlier, only affecting the vision at a later stage of life and, best of all, it can be cured. Even HRH suffers from them - the Queen is reported to have had surgery in May on an eye to remove a cataract

[Read more: 6 unexpected ways arthritis can affect your eyes and what to do about it]

What is a cataract?

Cataracts are caused when the protein in our lens, located behind the iris and pupil in the eye, clump together and begin to cloud a small area of the lens.

The blockage then prevents the light from passing through into the retina, at the back of the eye, which enables us to see.

People who suffer from cataracts tend to be 60 and over, however research by the National Eye Institute (NEI) has shown the development of cataracts can begin when someone is between 40-50 years old, but does not begin to affect a person's vision until around 60 years old.

A person can suffer from cataracts in just one eye or both, however the condition cannot spread from one to another.

What causes cataracts?

Despite popular belief, cataracts can be caused by other factors as well as old age, such as:

- general wear and tear
- certain diseases (diabetes)
- steroid use
- smoking or alcohol
- prolonged exposure to ultraviolet sunlight
- eye injury
- they can even be present at birth

How do cataracts affect your vision?

The most common symptoms are:

- cloudy or blurry vision
- colours seem faded
- poor night vision
- double vision or multiple images in one eye (this symptom may clear up as the cataract gets larger)
- frequent changes needed for you glasses or contact lenses

[Read more: Eye health: Your questions answered]

How can cataracts be detected?

Development of a cataract can be detected through eye examinations, which include:

- Visual acuity test – eye chart test, measuring vision at various distances.

- Dilated eye exam – Droplets used to widen or dilate pupils, so the eye care professional can look for signs of damage or other problems.

- Tonometry – specific instrument used to measure pressure inside the eye.

How are cataracts treated?

Early signs of cataract can be treated in various ways, such as:

- new glassses
- brighter lighting
- anti-glare sunglasses
- magnifying lenses

Once cataracts begin to affect your day to day activities, it is essential to have a surgical procedure.

Dr Chris Steele, who underwent cataract surgery on TV a few years back said: “My vision was getting poorer in a cloudy and misty way. I found reading small print difficult and it began to affect my work and everyday activities.

Describing the treatment, he added: “It's the lens behind the iris and they remove that lens and put a new artificial plastic lens in and put the front of the eye back on.

“I've had no pain, it's just a case of putting drops in your eyes for the next week – and my eyesight has improved dramatically.

“I was shocked at how bright the colours of things actually are.”

If you think you might be suffering from cataracts, speak to your GP who can refer you to an eye specialist.

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