Vision Loss: Symptoms, Prevention, Outlook, and More

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Vision loss is a reduction of sight and can affect you in distinct ways. Conditions that affect the eyes or the body can cause vision loss. Loss of vision can be distressing. However, knowing the symptoms and underlying causes can help you access effective medical care and treatment.

This article discusses the types of vision loss, and their symptoms and causes. It explains treatment, prevention, and outlook for vision loss, and answers some frequently asked questions.

Types of vision loss

A female adult places glasses over her eyes.
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

There are multiple types of vision loss, based on what part of vision is affected.

Types of vision loss include:

  • Central vision loss: Central vision is the ability to see straight ahead and the surrounding detail. Central vision loss is a loss or impairment to this range of vision.
  • Peripheral vision loss: Peripheral vision is the ability to see the sides of the visual field. Loss of peripheral vision impairs this ability, and leaves central vision intact.
  • General vision loss: General vision loss refers to a decrease or impairment in both central and peripheral vision.
  • Color perception loss: Color perception loss refers to a decreased ability to distinguish colors or their intensity.
  • Night blindness: This refers to a decrease or impairment in the ability to see in the dark or low light conditions.
  • Blurred or hazy vision: Blurry vision can make your vision seem out of focus, making it difficult to see clearly or sharply.

It is possible to experience more than one type of vision loss at once. Vision loss can also be partial, affecting only some aspects of vision, or complete. You may experience loss of vision in one eye, or in both eyes, depending on the cause.

Transient vision loss

Transient vision loss refers to episodes of temporary or reversible vision loss lasting less than 24 hours. Transient vision loss can affect one or both eyes. It generally occurs as a symptom or complication of another condition.

Sudden vision loss

Sudden vision loss is impairment that occurs anywhere from a few seconds or minutes to several days.

Sudden vision loss usually is a medical emergency and requires immediate clinical attention.

Gradual vision loss

Gradual vision loss refers to the slow and progressive loss of vision that can occur over a period of weeks or years.

Symptoms

Symptoms of vision impairment or loss can include:

  • blurry or cloudy vision in certain parts of the vision, such as peripheral vision
  • blurry or cloudy areas that get bigger over time
  • blank spots of vision or complete absence of vision
  • wavy appearance of straight lines
  • vision that is affected by flashing lights
  • floaters, specks in the visual field
  • difficulty seeing in low lighting
  • vision that seems out of focus
  • colors appearing less bright than before
  • difficulty reading or seeing objects from far away
  • pain, redness in the eye, and headache that accompanies vision changes
  • bleeding from the eye

Sudden and gradual vision loss can be painless.

When to seek medical help

In general, it is advisable to get a routine eye exam at least once every 2 years. This is if you have no underlying conditions or symptoms.

However, doctors recommend eye exams more often if someone is at risk for conditions that affect eye health. Conditions such as diabetes are often asymptomatic in the early stages. For example, the National Eye Institute (NEI) recommends a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once per year for people with diabetes.

If you notice gradual changes to your vision, seek prompt care from an ophthalmologist.

When is vision loss an emergency?

Clinicians consider sudden vision loss to be a medical emergency. Seek emergency care or call 911 for any symptoms of vision impairment, or changes to vision, that occur suddenly.

Additionally, seek emergency care for:

  • vision changes or symptoms that occur alongside other symptoms of illness, such as:
  • vision changes or symptoms if you have any other underlying conditions
  • possible or suspected injury to the eye or surrounding area

Causes

Some vision loss can be a typical part of aging.

However, clinical conditions can cause vision loss. These conditions include:

  • keratitis
  • eye strain and computer vision syndrome
  • uveitis
  • trauma, damage, or infection to the eyes or optic nerve, such as from conjunctivitis, optic neuritis, or injury
  • papilledema, swelling of the optic disc
  • blood clotting or blood vessel conditions, such as:
    • stroke
    • vasospasm, narrowing of a blood vessel in the brain
    • thromboembolism, obstruction of blood flow by a blood clot from another part of the body
    • retinal vascular occlusion
  • migraine, such as complex or retinal migraine
  • occipital epilepsy

Some conditions may cause the onset of vision loss over a long time period, such as several years. Causes of gradual vision loss can include:

  • Glaucoma: Glaucoma refers to a group of eye conditions that occur when the optic nerve experiences damage. Glaucoma can occur due to poor drainage of fluid in the eye. This causes an increase in pressure that can damage the optic nerve.
  • Macular degeneration: The macula is a small region of the central retina. The macula helps you see details such as writing or faces clearly. Macular degeneration refers to the macula becoming thinner or experiencing damage. Age-related deterioration can cause macular degeneration.
  • Diabetic retinopathy: This is a complication of diabetes. It occurs when high blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels of the eyes.
  • Cataract: Cataract refers to changes in the clarity of the lens of the eye that impair vision. Cataracts can be treatable with surgery.
An illustrated diagram of an eye.
A diagram of the eye. Medical Illustration by Maya Chastain

According to the NEI, there are often no early symptoms of macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and cataracts. Additionally, the symptoms of glaucoma often start very gradually and may not be noticeable at first.

A comprehensive dilated eye exam is the principal way to detect these conditions in their early stages.

Learn more about diabetic retinopathy, including its causes, treatment, and outlook.

Treatment options

Treatment for vision loss varies depending on your personal condition, the type of loss, and the underlying cause.

For example, treatment for vision loss resulting from vasospasm may include medications such as aspirin or calcium channel blockers.

In addition to medications, general treatment options can include:

  • eye drops
  • injections of medications, such as corticosteroids or anti-VEGF drugs, to the eye
  • laser treatment
  • photodynamic therapy, which combines injections with laser treatments
  • surgery

Treatments such as injections or surgery will use anesthetics to eliminate pain.

Your doctor can support you and advise you on adjustments to make if you have impaired vision.

Read more about coping with vision impairment due to macular degeneration.

Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following steps to prevent vision loss:

  • Visit your eye doctor regularly for a comprehensive dilated eye exam.
  • Maintain your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, particularly if you have diabetes.
  • Maintain a moderate weight.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Wear protective eyewear while carrying out physical activities.
  • Wear sunglasses that block out 99–100% of UVA and UVB rays.
  • Rest your eyes while using a digital screen, such as a computer, by taking breaks every 20 minutes.
  • Clean your hands and contact lenses properly if you use them.

Also be aware of whether you may be at high risk for developing an eye condition. You may be at risk if you:

  • have another underlying condition, such as diabetes
  • have a family history of eye conditions
  • are overweight or obese
  • smoke

If you are at high risk, it is important to have regular appointments with your eye doctor. In addition, you can work with your primary care doctor to manage these risks.

Outlook

Some causes of vision loss may respond to minimal or noninvasive treatments. Other conditions requiring more intensive treatments can still be resolvable. For example, cataract surgery can remove cataracts and correct vision loss.

Other conditions which cause permanent damage may not be reversible. Such conditions can include:

In some cases, it may be possible to prevent further vision loss or damage with effective treatment.

For your individual outlook, contact your doctor.

FAQ

William C. Lloyd III, M.D., FACS, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

Is vision loss curable?

The outlook for vision loss varies from case to case, depending on the underlying cause and the nature of the vision loss.

Some causes of vision loss, such as migraine or keratitis, can be temporary or treatable. Other causes, such as glaucoma or macular degeneration, are not curable. However, some treatments can prevent further loss of vision.

What diseases can cause vision loss?

One of the most common causes of vision loss in older adults is age-related macular degeneration.

Other conditions which cause vision loss can include:

Can stress cause vision loss?

Researchers from a 2018 study observed a case of vision loss which they theorize occurred due to stress and anxiety. The researchers suggest that mental or emotional stress can impair the function of the vessels in the eyes, exacerbating conditions that may lead to vision loss. Researchers also suggest that external stressors may cause individuals to focus less on their health, which could contribute to impaired eye health.

Additionally, stress can trigger migraine in some people, and some types of migraine can cause temporary vision loss.

Summary

Vision loss can be partial or general, and sudden or gradual.

Some causes of vision loss are resolvable. Causes such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy are not curable. However, treatment can slow or prevent further damage.

There may not be obvious symptoms with some causes of vision loss. Therefore, it is important to visit an eye doctor for regular eye examinations.

Seek emergency treatment for sudden vision loss or for vision loss that occurs with other symptoms or underlying conditions.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 28
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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