Type 1 diabetes is a condition that can have adverse effects on almost every part of your body if not properly managed, and one of the most vulnerable parts of any type 1 diabetic's body is their eyes. Even if are judicious with your insulin dosages and keep your blood sugar within a healthy range at all times, the long-term effects of type 1 diabetes can lead to a range of vision problems and eye illnesses. Having your eyes examined regularly by a reputable optometrist is essential for any type 1 diabetic who wants to preserve their vision as best they can.

How does type 1 diabetes affect the eyes?

Type 1 diabetes, even when properly managed, causes gradual, cumulative damage to the nerves, blood vessels and tissues in many parts of your body. The tissues of the eyes and the optic nerves that connect them to the brain are particularly vulnerable to this long-term damage, and people living with type 1 diabetes may encounter a range of vision problems over their lifetime.

For example, type 1 diabetes more than doubles the chances of a person developing cataracts, due to the damage the diabetes does to the lenses in your eyes. Damage to the vessels transporting blood to the eyes can also increase internal pressures within the eyeball, which can lead to glaucoma.

However, the most serious eye problem you should be concerned about is diabetic retinopathy, a condition that is only suffered by type 1 and type 2 diabetics. This condition damages the blood vessels in the retinas, the light sensitive organs in the backs of your eyes.

What are the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy, when left untreated, causes progressive vision loss which can be slow or rapid depending on the nature of your diabetes. The 'classic' symptom of retinopathy-induced vision loss is dark patches in your vision (often called 'floaters' because of the way they seem to drift across your field of vision). However, you may also experience loss of peripheral vision, increased sensitivity to light, alterations in how you perceive colours and difficulty focusing on objects both far and near.

How can diabetic retinopathy be prevented and treated?

The best way to prevent diabetic retinopathy, or halt its progression if you already suffer from it, is by keeping your blood sugar levels as close to optimal as possible -- something every type 1 diabetic should be doing in close cooperation with their GP and other medical specialists.

However, frequent eye exams are also crucial for preserving your sight, even if you do not show any signs of diabetic retinopathy. Most doctors recommend that people with type 1 diabetes have an eye exam within a year of your diabetes diagnosis, and at least once a year after that. If you have already been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, you may need eye exams several times a year. 

Attending frequent eye exams allows your optometrist to monitor the overall health of your eye, and will allow them to spot any early warning signs of damage to the retinas of your eyes. This allows you to maintain as much of your vision as possible, even in later life, and your optometrist's findings will be a great help to your doctor and diabetes specialists.

If diabetic retinopathy has already affected your vision to a certain extent, your optometrists can offer you treatments and visual aids to help you overcome your vision loss. For example, optometrists can offer special shaded prescription glasses to people who are suffering increased light sensitivity due to their retinopathy. If your retinopathy is more advanced, your optometrist can use special lasers to cauterise the damaged blood vessels in your retinas, preventing them from causing further damage and vision loss.