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Diabetic retinopathy

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Illustration showing a normal eye with healthy blood vessels, and an eye with retinopathy with tiny blood vessels leaking fluid into the retinaDiabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes, caused by high blood sugar levels damaging the back of the eye (retina). It can cause blindness if left undiagnosed and untreated.

The tiny blood vessels that bring blood to the retina become damaged in three main stages.

You're more at risk if:

Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy

In the early stages you'll have no symptoms.

You may develop several eye problems such as:

See your general practice team or optometrist if you get any of these symptoms.

Diagnosing diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed by looking at the back of your eye either directly or from photos. These are done as part of a diabetic eye check (retinal screening).

Treating diabetic retinopathy

Treatment doesn't cure diabetic retinopathy and it doesn't usually restore your vision to what it was before. But it can slow down the damage and stop new damage from happening. It's very important that you get good control over your blood glucose (sugar), as this can reduce any further damage.

Laser treatment

Laser treatment seals leaking blood vessels in your retina.If diabetic retinopathy is threatening your vision, laser treatment may be an option.

The laser seals leaking blood vessels in your retina. It also stops fragile, abnormal blood vessels from growing. These blood vessels may bleed and suddenly reduce your sight.

Focal laser treatment is when the laser can just treat one spot, such as the macula.

Panretinal photocoagulation (pan-re-tin-al foto-co-ag-u-lay-shun) is laser treatment used more widely in the retina. This helps to slow down or stop any further damage.

Injections

Medicines such as Avastin (bevacizumab), Lucentis (ranibizumab) and Eylea (aflibercept) can help. They reduce the growth of abnormal blood vessels and the amount of fluid leaking from them.

These medicines can be injected into your eye after it's numbed with a local anaesthetic. This treatment is especially useful if the retinopathy is affecting your macula. Your macula is the part of the retina that is responsible for fine, detailed vision.

You may just need one injection, or you may need several injections.

Surgery

If you have advanced diabetic eye disease and severe loss of vision, you may need retinal surgery. If you have this surgery, you may need to stay in hospital overnight.

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

You can reduce your risk of diabetic retinopathy by:

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2023.

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Review key: HIDYE-139181