6 surprising things your eyes reveal about your health 

6 surprising things your eyes reveal about your health 

An eye exam can find a serious health condition before you notice symptoms. Or it can find a sign that a disease you know you have is getting worse and needs more care.

Senior picking glasses

Don’t need glasses or contacts to see clearly? Then you might think a yearly trip to the eye doctor isn’t worth your time. But in fact, such a visit can tell you a lot more about your health than how your eyes are doing.

“It has to do with location, location, location,” says Andrew Iwach, MD. He’s a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “Where the eyes are located, and where the pathways are in the brain, give us insight into what’s happening in the body. The eyes are the only part of the body where we can see bare arteries, veins and nerves without making an incision.” 

As a result, an eye exam can find a serious health condition before you notice symptoms. Or it can find a sign that a disease you know you have is getting worse and needs more care. “We’re physicians, so when we do an eye exam, we leverage the medical school training we had to gather medical information,” Dr. Iwach says. (Note that ophthalmologists are medical doctors. Optometrists are not, but they often spot other health problems, too.)

Here’s a list of some of  the health problems your eye doctor can help uncover that might surprise you.

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High blood pressure  

During an exam, your eye doctor may use eyedrops to help widen your pupil. This lets them have a better view of the back of your eye. If your eye doctor sees changes in the small blood vessels — such as an abnormal appearance or slight bleeding, that may mean you have high blood pressure, Dr. Iwach says.* Be sure to ask your primary doctor about these symptoms.

Diabetes 

If you have diabetes, an eye doctor may check to see if the blood vessels in your eyes are leaking into the retina. This is a condition called diabetic retinopathy.* This is a diabetes-related eye problem that affects the retina. (That’s the part of the eye that takes in light so you can see.*)

At first, the condition may cause no symptoms at all. Or it may cause a little blurriness. But it can also lead to blindness. Treating diabetes, and your eyes if needed, can help save your vision.     

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High cholesterol

The clear layer that covers your eye — the cornea — may have cholesterol deposits, which may be flat or raised. These aren’t usually anything to worry about. And there’s often no need for treatment.* But it can be a sign that you need to visit your primary care provider (PCP). Then, talk with your PCP about your heart health and what you can do to protect your heart.   

Autoimmune diseases 

Some illnesses can cause inflammation in the body. That includes many parts of your eye. And it means you should visit a doctor who focuses on autoimmune diseases. (This is when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells).     

Examples of autoimmune diseases are rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory illness. It affects many joints like those in the hands and feet. Multiple sclerosis is a disease where the immune system eats away at the cover that protects your nerves. Type 1 diabetes stops your pancreas from making insulin. Your body needs insulin to manage blood sugar.

Some cancers

Some cancers can spread to the eye. These are cancers that grow throughout the body, Dr. Iwach says. Some can change your eye structures. These changes might mean cancer, Dr. Iwach says. “And skin cancer can show up near the eyes because they get a lot of UV radiation.” These are all things your eye doctor will look for in an eye exam.    

Have a health question that can’t wait for your next checkup?

Call the 24-Hour Nurse Line at 1-800-556-1555 (TTY: 711) to speak with a registered nurse. If you need urgent or emergency care, call 911 and/or your doctor immediately or go to your closest emergency room.

Aneurysm 

“If the pupils are not working right, that could be a sign of an aneurism,” Dr. Iwach says.  An aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of a main vein. It looks like a little balloon. This bulge can press on nearby tissue and nerves, causing one of the pupils to be larger. Other eye signs include a drooping eyelid, pain above or behind the eye or double vision.

If you notice any of these signs yourself, call your doctor right away. It could mean you have an aneurysm or other serious condition that could be deadly.*      

If your eye doctor sees any of these changes, they may suggest seeing a specialist, Dr. Iwach says. That might be an internist, a neurologist or a rheumatologist.

When you take charge of your eye health, you can take charge of your health overall. So go ahead and schedule your eye exam today. 

Get clarity on your vision benefit

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*FOR HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE AND PARTS OF THE EYE SOURCE: Mukamal R. American Academy of Ophthalmology. 20 surprising health problems an eye exam can catch. January 19, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2024.

*FOR RETINOPATHY SOURCE: Cleveland Clinic. Your eyes: a window to your health. July 5, 2020. Accessed April 10, 2024.   

*FOR LIGHT IN THE EYE SOURCE: Mayo Clinic. Diabetic retinopathy. February 21, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2024. 

*FOR CHOLESTEROL TREATMENT SOURCE: Lopez-Jimenez F. Mayo Clinic. Arcus senilis: a sign of cholesterol? July 8, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2024.

*FOR BRAIN ANEURSYM DANGER SOURCE: Mayo Clinic. Brain aneurysm. March 7, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2024.


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