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What you need to know about glaucoma: Is this sneaky disease stealing your vision?

Glaucoma could be silently killing dozens of vision fibers in your optic nerve right now without you knowing. This silent “thief of sight” affects more than three million Americans and is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide.

“The scariest part about glaucoma is that many people don’t even know the disease is affecting them,” said Derrick S. Fung, MD, an ophthalmologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple.

“It’s a very slow process. People can go for years or decades and not even realize that they’re slowly going blind.”

While there are often no early symptoms of glaucoma, later symptoms include:

  • Loss of peripheral (side) vision
  • Blind spots
  • Eventual blindness

But there’s good news! There are steps you can take to help detect glaucoma early—and effective treatments to help slow the progression of the disease.

Who is at risk for glaucoma?

Anyone can get glaucoma, but certain factors may increase your risk of developing it. You’re at higher risk if you:

  • Are over age 60, especially if you’re Hispanic/Latino
  • Are African American and over age 40
  • Have a family history of glaucoma
  • Have nearsightedness

“One of the strongest risk factors is older age,” Dr. Fung said. “The older you are, the higher your risk for developing glaucoma.”

Your general health and preexisting conditions may also influence your eye health. High blood pressure, sleep apnea, or other chronic diseases, such as diabetes,  raise your risk of developing the disease.

Using steroids for COPD has also been linked to an increased risk of glaucoma, according to research.

How will my doctor check for glaucoma?

Diagnosing glaucoma starts with a careful evaluation of the optic nerve at the back of your eye. Your eye doctor will perform a painless comprehensive dilated eye exam to test the pressure in your eye and look for glaucoma damage in the optic nerve.

“We put all the pieces together and can usually diagnose glaucoma in the eye clinic,” Dr. Fung said.

What treatments are available?

Scientists don’t know what causes the most common form of the disease, but many people with glaucoma have high eye pressure.  Treatments that lower eye pressure help to slow the disease.

“Once someone is diagnosed with glaucoma, it is important that we control the pressure in the eye,” Dr. Fung said. “We have three ways to control the pressure. There’s medication, laser treatment and surgery. We always try to start with the medicines, but sometimes it’s not enough and we have to try another treatment to keep the pressures under control.”

When the pressure in the eye gets too high, the damage is more likely to occur. So, getting a regular eye exam and being compliant when the doctor prescribes medication is essential to keep the disease from causing further damage.

“Unfortunately, once the damage is done to the vision fibers, the damage is permanent,” Dr. Fung said. “So, our hope is to catch it early and get the pressures under control to prevent the damage from getting worse.”

What to expect if you have glaucoma

People with glaucoma need to build a relationship with an ophthalmologist because glaucoma isn’t a one-treatment disease.

“Glaucoma is one of those diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes. We’re going to have to keep watching it closely,” Dr. Fung said. “If you have a long-term relationship with your doctor, they can ensure everything is under control over time.”

Regular and thorough eye exams are the key to protecting your eyes and vision. Talk with your doctor about your risks and how often you should get checked for glaucoma. The Glaucoma Foundation recommends a baseline eye screening at age 40.

Do you have glaucoma? Visit the National Eye Institute for more information and a helpful guide for talking to your doctor about your condition.

Find an eye care specialist near you.

What you need to know about glaucoma: Is this sneaky disease stealing your vision?