Your Health A-Z

Cataracts FAQ: how do they develop, are you at risk, when do you require surgery?

Cataracts form as your eye lenses become less flexible and transparent as you age. Left untreated, it can lead to blindness. Discover if you’re at risk and what to expect from surgery.

What are cataracts?

Quite simply, cataracts are the thickening and opacification of your eye’s lens due to ageing. The clouding of the lens causes blurry vision and eventual blindness. They are one of the leading causes of visual impairment around the world and according to the World Health Organisation, are responsible for blindness in 20 million people worldwide.

How do cataracts develop?

Most cataracts develop slowly and are left undiagnosed for a long time. As you get older, your eye lenses become less flexible and transparent which causes certain proteins to form into abnormal clumps. These clumps become larger over time, creating a film over your eye’s lens and preventing light from passing through your lens.

Are you at risk?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent cataracts as they are often an age-related occurrence. They can, however, also occur because of an eye injury. Factors that increase the risk of developing cataract include:

  • Increasing age
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Previous eye injury or inflammation
  • Previous eye surgery
  • Prolonged use of corticosteroid medications
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol 

What are the symptoms of cataracts?

According to Dr Willem Gerber, an ophthalmologist at Mediclinic Durbanville, in the early stages you will notice a decrease in the quality of your vision without the presence of cloudiness.

But as the cataract grows larger it will lead to more noticeable symptoms such as:

  • Clouded, blurred or dim vision
  • Increasing difficulty with vision at night
  • Sensitivity to light and glare
  • Need for brighter light for reading and other activities
  • Seeing ‘halos’ around lights
  • Frequent changes in eyeglass (spectacle) or contact lens prescription
  • Fading or yellowing of colours
  • Double vision in a single eye
  • With denser cataracts, you can sometimes read without your reading glasses as the thickened lens (cataract) acts as a plus lens (reader)

What will happen if a cataract is left unattended?

If you don’t see a doctor about your cataract, you will eventually lose your sight.

When do you require surgery?

Most people over the age of 60 have some form of lens thickening. However, if the visual symptoms are not present then surgery is not needed.

Cataract surgery: what does the procedure entail?

Cataract surgery is quick and is often performed on an outpatient basis that won’t require an overnight stay.

Two ophthalmologists associated with Mediclinic, Dr Willem Gerber and Dr Burnet Meyer, recently performed ten cataract procedures at Mediclinic Durbanville Day Clinic for patients who had been on the public-sector surgical waiting list at Groote Schuur hospital. These procedures formed part of Mediclinic’s ongoing private/public health initiative.

Dr Gerber outlines the process below:

After confirming you have a cataract, the ophthalmologist calculates the correct strength of the intra-ocular lens (IOL) that needs to be inserted at the time of surgery. Only one eye is operated on at a time. The second eye is usually done within a week.

Cataract surgery can be performed under topical, local or general anaesthesia.

After sedation, your eyes are cleaned and draped with sterile dressings. The surgeon then makes microscopic incisions in your eye. The cataract is then carefully broken up by a probe that produces ultrasound waves and is then sucked up by the same probe. An intraocular lens is then inserted into your ‘lens bag’. No stitches are needed as the wounds are self-sealing. The ophthalmologist will review your eye the following day.

Recovery time and success rate

Most patients will notice a difference in their vision the day after surgery and can resume work within a week. The best visual result will be experienced after four to six weeks once your cornea has healed.

Over 90% of patients are happy with their vision after surgery. However, not all patients will see as well as expected after the surgery because co-existing ocular conditions could be present.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.