Dilation can help spot eye diseases

Dilating the eye helps the eye-care professional better

Dilating the eye helps the eye-care professional better assess the condition of the optic nerve and retina. This can help spot a range of conditions and diseases while they are still in the early stages. (Credit: iStock)

The National Eye Institute recommends yearly eye-dilation exams for people 60 and older and anyone with diabetes. Yes, it's an inconvenience to be dilated, but the benefits outweigh any negatives. Dilating the eye helps the eye-care professional better assess the condition of the optic nerve and retina. This can help spot a range of conditions and diseases while they are still in the early stages.

"We definitely get a better view of everything in the back of the eye when the pupil is dilated," says Dr. Howard Pomeranz, a physician and ophthalmologist with the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System.

In an eye-dilation exam, drops are put into a patient's eyes to enlarge the pupil. This makes it easier for the eye-care professional to pick up early signs of age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma. "Your risk of developing glaucoma goes up as you get older, and we assess that by looking at the optic nerve," Pomeranz says. Glaucoma typically is symptomless until it reaches an advanced stage.

Similarly, early signs of age-related macular degeneration may be missed by the patient. "People may have a slight decrease in vision, but nothing severe enough that they would notice a big change," Pomeranz says. An eye-dilation exam can also help the doctor evaluate if the patient is at risk for a retinal tear or detachment, Pomeranz says.

Another reason to get an eye-dilation exam goes beyond vision problems. The Mayo Clinic notes that several serious "whole body" conditions may be diagnosed, including brain tumors, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Remember that eye-dilation exams take a bit of planning. Because the effects of the eye drops usually leave your vision blurry for several hours, make sure you go with someone who can drive you home.

"Most of the time, it lasts two to three hours, although it could last half a day," Pomeranz says. "The lighter somebody's iris color is, the longer it tends to last." It may also help if you bring sunglasses, because until the effects of the drops wear off, your eyes may be very sensitive to light.

Even if you don't get an eye-dilation exam, make sure you get a yearly comprehensive eye checkup that will also look for signs of glaucoma, macular degeneration and other serious eye conditions.

For more information on what to expect at an eye-dilation exam, go to bit.ly/senior-dilation.

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