Evidence Based

Glaucoma vs Cataracts

What is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma belongs to a group of eye diseases, in which the eye suffers optic nerve damage. The optic nerve helps to carry visual information from the retina (nervous tissue covering a good portion of the eye that senses light) to the brain. 

graphic showing the development of glaucoma

When left untreated in more severe cases, the eye condition can lead to vision loss and blindness. 

For individuals aged 60 or older, glaucoma is a primary cause of blindness. Early detection and eye care treatment can, however, prevent such loss of vision. 

Glaucoma can fall into two main categories, including:

  • Primary open-angle glaucoma. This eye condition is the most common form of glaucoma. Occurring little by little, the eye has trouble draining fluid. Improper fluid drainage leads to a build-up of eye pressure and begins to damage the optic nerve. Painless and with no initial changes in vision, primary open-angle glaucoma may go undetected. For this reason, individuals should visit their eye doctor and undergo regular eye exams to detect any early indications of optic nerve damage. 
  • Angle-closure glaucoma. This eye condition arises when an individual’s iris is very close to the eye’s drainage angle (the part of the eye that helps drain fluid and maintain normal intraocular pressure). It may be gradual or acute (occurring suddenly). Those with gradual-like angle-closure glaucoma may not notice any symptoms. In the case that eye fluid cannot pass through the drainage angle at all, eye pressure will increase sharply (acute), and the risk of blindness will become too high. It is important to seek immediate help from an ophthalmologist in such instances. Asians and those with farsightedness are at a higher risk of this condition.

The following list comprises symptoms of primary open-angle glaucoma:

  • Loss of peripheral vision. Those with this condition may not report any symptoms or signs. The eye disease works slowly until blind spots appear in the peripheral visual field. 

The following list comprises symptoms of an acute angle-closure glaucoma attack:

  • Sudden blurred vision
  • Severe eye pain
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Seeing rainbow-colored rings or halos around lights

Glaucoma treatment cannot reverse the damage caused by the disease. It can, however, prevent further health incidents and vision loss. 

Treatment options may range from eyedrop medication to glaucoma surgery, like trabeculectomy and iridotomy. Both laser treatments facilitate fluid drainage and reduce eye pressure. 

African Americans, especially those aged 40 or older, have an increased risk of developing glaucoma when compared to whites. Individuals living with diabetes are twice as likely to have glaucoma than those without diabetes. Other risk factors for the eye condition include age ≥ 60 and a family history of glaucoma.

What are Cataracts?

Cataracts appear when there is a clouding of the lens in the eye. The lens of the eye should be clear. However, as part of the aging process, the lens may lose such clarity, with light not reaching the retina properly (located in the back of the eye). Vision problems occur as a result.

cataracts scaled e1598035826129

Some of the symptoms associated with this age-related eye condition include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Double vision (when two images appear instead of one)
  • Extra sensitivity to light 
  • Difficulty with nighttime vision 
  • An appearance of bright colors as faded or yellow

Reasons for as to why some individuals develop cataracts will vary. Some of the primary causes of this eye disease are as follows:

  • Underlying medical conditions (like diabetes)
  • Smoking
  • Ultraviolet (UV) damage caused by sun exposure 
  • Certain medications (like corticosteroids)
  • Family history of cataracts 
  • Prior eye injury or eye surgery, as well as radiation treatments of upper body

The degree of cloudiness caused by cataracts can change from one individual to the next. In milder cases, an ophthalmology clinic may provide a new eyeglass prescription to improve vision. However, if cataracts cause significant vision impairment, individuals have the option to undergo cataract surgery.

When an individual decides to undergo the procedure, the eye surgeon replaces the cloudy natural lens with an artificial lens called an intraocular lens (IOL). Substituting the natural lens for an IOL helps to restore clarity, relieve individuals of vision problems, and improve quality of life. 

Can Glaucoma Cause Cataracts?

Glaucoma does not cause cataracts. However, both glaucoma and cataracts can lead to blindness if left untreated. 

It is possible to suffer from both eye health issues. These conditions are more common in aging individuals. 

What Condition is Worse?

Glaucoma and cataracts may have severe consequences on vision. While cataract surgery may restore vision due to the replacement of the natural lens, damage caused by glaucoma is irreversible. 

Cataracts develop at varying speeds and can affect each individual’s vision differently.

For these reasons, it is always recommended to visit an ophthalmologist to receive a comprehensive eye exam and receive immediate treatment, if necessary. 

Glaucoma vs Cataracts FAQs

Do cataracts lead to glaucoma?

No. Cataracts do not lead to glaucoma. These are two different eye conditions that can affect vision and if not treated, result in blindness. It is important to remember that the damage caused by glaucoma is permanent. 

Does high eye pressure cause cataracts?

No. High eye pressure does not cause cataracts. It instead causes another eye condition called glaucoma. When high eye pressure is not released, individuals are at risk of suffering irreversible damage to the optic nerve. In the most severe cases, glaucoma can result in complete and permanent loss of vision. 

What are the symptoms of cataracts and glaucoma?

In most cases of glaucoma, there are no initial symptoms. Glaucoma tends to develop gradually. However, when it worsens, individuals may report a loss in peripheral vision. Also, for those who suffer an acute case of angle-closure glaucoma, symptoms may include:

  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Headaches
  • Severe eye pain
  • Sudden blurred vision
  • An appearance of halos or rainbow-coloring rings around lights

Individuals living with cataracts will report similar yet different symptoms. These may include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Double vision (when two images appear instead of one)
  • Extra sensitivity to light 
  • Difficulting with nighttime vision 
  • An appearance of bright colors as faded or yellow otherwise
Author: Anthony Armenta | UPDATED September 22, 2020
Medical reviewer: MELODY HUANG, O.D. 
Resources

Boyd, Kierstan. “Cataract Diagnosis and Treatment.” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 15 May 2020, www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/cataracts-treatment.

Boyd, Kierstan. “What Are Cataracts?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 8 Sept. 2020, www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-are-cataracts.

Boyd, Kierstan. “What Is Glaucoma?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 6 Jan. 2020, www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-is-glaucoma.

“Don't Let Glaucoma Steal Your Sight!” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 Dec. 2018, www.cdc.gov/features/glaucoma-awareness/index.html.

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