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Leila M. Khazaeni

, MD, Loma Linda University School of Medicine

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020

A cataract is a congenital or degenerative opacity of the lens. The main symptom is gradual, painless vision blurring. Diagnosis is by ophthalmoscopy and slit-lamp examination. Treatment is surgical removal and placement of an intraocular lens.

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. In the US, almost 20% of people aged 65 to 74 have cataracts that interfere with vision. Almost one in two people older than 75 has cataracts.

Lens opacity can develop in several locations:

  • Central lens nucleus (nuclear cataract)
  • Beneath the posterior lens capsule (posterior subcapsular cataract)
  • On the side of the lens (cortical cataract)—these usually do not interfere with central vision

(For developmental or congenital cataracts, see Congenital Cataract.)

Etiology of Cataract

Cataracts occur with aging. Other risk factors may include the following:

  • Trauma (sometimes causing cataracts years later)
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Exposure to x-rays
  • Heat from infrared exposure
  • Systemic disease (eg, diabetes)
  • Uveitis
  • Systemic drugs (eg, corticosteroids)
  • Undernutrition
  • Chronic ultraviolet light exposure

Many people have no risk factors other than age. Some cataracts are congenital with a genetic etiology, or associated with a systemic syndrome or diseases.

Estrogen use by women after menopause may be protective, but estrogen should not be used solely for this purpose.

Symptoms and Signs of Cataract

Cataracts usually develop slowly over years. Early symptoms may be loss of contrast, glare (ie, halos and starbursts around lights, not photophobia), needing more light to see well, and problems distinguishing dark blue from black. Painless blurring eventually occurs. The degree of blurring depends on the location and extent of the opacity. Monocular double vision or ghost images occur rarely.

With a nuclear cataract, distance vision worsens. Near vision may improve in the early stages because of changes in the refractive index of the lens; presbyopic patients may be temporarily able to read without glasses (second sight).

A posterior subcapsular cataract disproportionately affects vision because the opacity is located at the crossing point of incoming light rays. Such cataracts reduce visual acuity more when the pupil constricts (eg, in bright light, during reading). They are also the type most likely to cause loss of contrast as well as glare (halos and starbursts around lights), especially from bright lights or from car headlights while driving at night.

Rarely, the cataract swells, pushing the iris over the trabecular drainage meshwork and causing its occlusion and thus secondary closed-angle glaucoma and pain.

Diagnosis of Cataract

  • Ophthalmoscopy followed by slit-lamp examination

Diagnosis is best made with the pupil dilated. Well-developed cataracts appear as gray, white, or yellow-brown opacities in the lens. Examination of the red reflex through the dilated pupil with the ophthalmoscope held about 30 cm away usually discloses subtle opacities. Small cataracts stand out as dark defects in the red reflex. A large cataract may obliterate the red reflex. Slit-lamp examination provides more details about the character, location, and extent of the opacity.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Examination of the red reflex through the dilated pupil with the ophthalmoscope held about 30 cm away can help identify early cataracts if a slit lamp is unavailable.

Treatment of Cataract

  • Surgical removal of the cataract
  • Placement of an intraocular lens

Frequent refractions and corrective lens prescription changes may help maintain useful vision during cataract development. Rarely, long-term pupillary dilation (with phenylephrine 2.5% every 4 to 8 hours) is helpful for small centrally located cataracts. Indirect lighting while reading minimizes pupillary constriction and may optimize vision for close tasks.

Usual indications for surgery include the following:

  • Best vision obtained with glasses is worse than 20/40 (< 6/12), or vision is significantly decreased under glare conditions (eg, oblique lighting while trying to read a chart) in a patient with bothersome halos or starbursts.
  • Patients sense that vision is limiting (eg, by preventing activities of daily living such as driving, reading, hobbies, and occupational activities).
  • Vision could potentially be meaningfully improved if the cataract is removed (ie, a significant portion of the vision loss must be caused by the cataract).

Far less common indications include cataracts that cause glaucoma or that obscure the fundus in patients who need periodic fundus examinations for management of diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. There is no advantage to removing a cataract early.

Cataract extraction and lens implant procedures

Cataract extraction is usually done using a topical or local anesthetic and IV sedation. There are 3 extraction techniques:

  • In intracapsular cataract extraction, the cataract and lens capsule are removed in one piece; this technique is rarely used.
  • In extracapsular cataract extraction, the hard central nucleus is removed in one piece and then the soft cortex is removed in multiple small pieces.
  • In phacoemulsification (a type of extracapsular cataract extraction), the hard central nucleus is dissolved by ultrasound and then the soft cortex is removed in multiple small pieces.

Phacoemulsification uses the smallest incision, thus enabling the fastest healing, and is usually the preferred procedure. Femtosecond lasers can be used in refractive laser-assisted cataract surgery to do certain parts of the cataract surgery prior to phacoemulsification. In extracapsular extraction (including phacoemulsification), the lens capsule is not removed.

A plastic or silicone lens is almost always implanted intraocularly to replace the optical focusing power of the removed crystalline lens. The lens implant is usually placed on or within the lens capsule (posterior chamber lens). The lens can also be placed in front of the iris (anterior chamber lens) or attached to the iris and within the pupil (iris plane lens). Iris plane lenses are rarely used in the US because many designs led to a high frequency of postoperative complications. Multifocal intraocular lenses are newer and have different focusing zones that may reduce dependence on glasses after surgery. Patients occasionally experience glare with these lenses, especially under low-light conditions, and also have problems with reduced contrast sensitivity.

Postsurgical care and complications

In most cases, a tapering schedule of topical antibiotics and topical corticosteroids (eg, prednisolone acetate 1% 1 drop 4 times a day) is used for up to 4 weeks postsurgery. Antibiotics can also be injected into the eye (intracameral) at the conclusion of cataract surgery, with a reduced need for topical eyedrops postoperatively. Several large, controlled studies show that intracameral antibiotics decrease postoperative endophthalmitis (1, 2). Patients often wear an eye shield while sleeping and should avoid the Valsalva maneuver, heavy lifting, excessive forward bending, and eye rubbing for several weeks.

Major complications of cataract surgery are rare. Complications include the following:

  • Intraoperative: Bleeding beneath the retina, causing the intraocular contents to extrude through the incision (choroidal hemorrhage—very rare and could result in irreversible blindness), vitreous prolapsing out of the incision (vitreous loss), fragments of the cataract dislocating into the vitreous, incisional burn, and detachment of corneal endothelium and its basement membrane (Descemet membrane)
  • Within the first week: Endophthalmitis (infection within the eye—very rare and could result in irreversible blindness) and glaucoma
  • Within the first month: Cystoid macular edema
  • Months later: Bullous keratopathy (ie, swelling of the cornea due to damage to the corneal pump cells during cataract surgery), retinal detachment, and posterior capsular opacification (common but treatable with laser)

After surgery, vision returns to 20/40 (6/12) or better in 95% of eyes if there are no preexisting disorders such as amblyopia, retinopathy, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. If an intraocular lens is not implanted, contact lenses or thick glasses are needed to correct the resulting hyperopia.

Treatment references

  • 1. Endophthalmitis Study Group: European Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgeons, Dublin, Ireland. Prophylaxis of postoperative endophthalmitis following cataract surgery: Results of the ESCRS multicenter study and identification of risk factors. J Cataract Refract Surg 33:978-988, 2007. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrs.2007.02.032
  • 2. Shorstein NH, Winthrop KL, Herrinton LJ: Decreased postoperative endophthalmitis rate after institution of intracameral antibiotics in a Northern California eye department. J Cataract Refract Surg 39:8-14, 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrs.2012.07.031

Prevention of Cataract

Many ophthalmologists recommend ultraviolet-coated eyeglasses or sunglasses as a preventive measure. Reducing risk factors such as alcohol, tobacco, and corticosteroids and controlling blood glucose in diabetes delay onset. A diet high in vitamin C, vitamin A, and carotenoids (contained in vegetables such as spinach and kale) may protect against cataracts.

Key Points

  • Modifiable risk factors for cataract include exposure to ultraviolet light; use of alcohol, tobacco, and systemic corticosteroids; and poor control of blood glucose.
  • Symptoms include loss of contrast, glare (halos and starbursts around lights), and eventually visual blurring.
  • Diagnosis is by examination with the eye dilated.
  • Surgical removal and placement of an intraocular lens are usually indicated if the cataract contributes to visual loss that interferes with activities of daily living, causes bothersome glare, or reaches certain degrees of severity (eg, best-corrected visual acuity worse than 20/40).

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
phenylephrine No US brand name
prednisolone ORAPRED, PRELONE

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