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Diabetes and your eyes: Care instructions

Diabetes and Your Eyes

Care instructions

What is diabetic retinopathy?

Diabetic retinopathy is a painless eye disease of the retina caused by diabetes. The retina is the thin film at the back of the eye. It works like a camera to capture information about what you see.

Diabetes can cause damage to the tiny blood vessels in the retina. This can lead to changes in your eyesight such as:

  • seeing dark, floating spots
  • having blurry vision
  • having trouble seeing well at night
  • blindness

When you have diabetic retinopathy, your eyesight gets worse over time if it’s not treated.

Changes that happen over time with diabetic retinopathy
Credit: Canadian Ophthalmological Society

Diabetic retinopathy is the most common cause of blindness in working-age people.

Why is it important to have regular diabetes eye health exams?

Having a diabetes eye health exam each year helps find diabetic retinopathy early. You may not notice changes to your eyesight until diabetic retinopathy is advanced. This is why it’s important to have a diabetes eye health exam each year.

If there is a problem with your eyes, you may need treatment to slow or prevent the loss of your eyesight.

What happens during a diabetes eye health exam?

The diabetes eye health exam is done by an optometrist (a medical professional trained in diagnosing and treating eye conditions) or an ophthalmologist (a doctor trained in surgery and other advanced treatment of eye diseases). You don’t need a referral from your doctor to see an optometrist, but you need one to see an ophthalmologist.

During a diabetes eye health exam, your eyes will be dilated. This is done with eye drops that make your pupils (the black, centre part of the eye) larger. Having your eyes dilated lets your optometrist or ophthalmologist have a clear view of the retina at the back of your eye.

After the exam, you’ll need someone to drive you home. You won’t be able to drive your vehicle for a few hours after your eyes are dilated.

To find an optometrist near you, go to the Alberta Association of Optometrists ( website.

Is the diabetes eye health exam covered in Alberta?

Yes, the diabetes eye health exam is covered by Alberta Health Care. When you book your appointment, you must say that you have diabetes and would like to book a “diabetes eye health exam”.

How is a regular eye exam different from a diabetes eye health exam?

A regular eye exam takes measurements of your eyes to test how well you see. If your eyesight isn’t perfect, you may get a prescription for lenses to correct it. A regular eye exam isn’t covered by Alberta Health Care if you’re between the ages of 19 and 64.

How often do I need a diabetes eye health exam?

You should have a diabetes eye health exam once a year or as often as your optometrist or ophthalmologist says you need one. But if you have changes to your eyesight, make an appointment to see your optometrist or ophthalmologist right away.

Remember, you may not notice changes to your eyes or eyesight so it’s important to go for regular diabetes eye health exams.

What can I do to lower my risk of diabetic retinopathy?

To lower your risk of diabetic retinopathy:

  • keep your blood sugar level, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels at your target range – Your healthcare provider will let you know what your target ranges are.
  • have regular diabetes eye health exams

What happens if I have diabetic retinopathy?

Not everyone with diabetic retinopathy needs treatment. If you need treatment for diabetic retinopathy, you’ll be referred to an ophthalmologist.

To see this information online and learn more, visit


For 24/7 nurse advice and general health information call Health Link at 811.

Current as of: September 28, 2020

Author: Diabetes, Obesity & Nutrition Strategic Clinical Network / Neurosciences, Rehabilitation & Vision Strategic Clinical Network

This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.