Diabetes: Eye Care

How does diabetes affect my body?

Diabetes causes the level of sugar in your blood to be higher than normal. A high blood sugar level can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that run throughout your body.

Damage to your blood vessels and nerves can lead to a number of problems, including blindness and trouble with your feet that can lead to the need for amputation. You can help prevent these problems by following the tips in the box below. The most important thing is to control your blood sugar level.

Tips on preventing foot and eye problems

  • Control your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Exercise regularly
  • See your family doctor regularly
  • Eat a good diet (talk to your doctor about what to eat)
  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid alcohol

What kind of eye problems am I at risk of?

Uncontrolled or poorly controlled diabetes can damage the small blood vessels of the retina (called retinopathy). The retina is the part of the eye that's sensitive to light and sends messages to your brain about what you see.

When the blood vessels of your retina are damaged, fluid can leak from them and cause swelling in your macula. The macula is the part of your eye that gives you sharp, clear vision.

If the retinopathy worsens, your eye may begin to form new blood vessels over the retina. These vessels are fragile and can break easily and bleed. Scar tissue may form, which can cause the retina to break away from the back of the eye.

When retinopathy is found early, laser treatment can help keep you from losing your vision. If it's not treated, retinopathy can cause blindness.

How should I take care of my eyes?

The main thing is to have your eyes checked regularly--at least once a year. You won't notice the early signs of problems because the changes in your eyes can only be seen through special equipment.

If you notice any of the symptoms in the box below, call your doctor.

Call your doctor if you:

  • Have blurred vision for more than 2 days
  • Suddenly lose vision in one or both eyes
  • See black spots, cobwebs or flashing lights that aren't really there

What about my feet?

Your feet may not be receiving a good blood supply due to damaged blood vessels. Also, the damage to your nerves may cause you to lose feeling in your feet. Diabetes can also damage your body's ability to fight infection.

All of these things can work together to turn even minor foot injuries--such as blisters, calluses or ingrown toenails--into very serious infections that could lead to the loss of your foot. Taking care of your feet helps prevent problems.

How can I take care of my feet?

Check your feet every day for blisters, scratches or sores. If it's hard to check the bottoms of your feet, put a mirror on the floor and look at the reflection. Call your doctor if you notice anything unusual, including foot pain, coldness, a shiny appearance to your skin, loss of hair on the foot or toes, or thickened nails. Be sure to have your feet checked by your doctor at least once a year. The tips listed in the box below can help you prevent problems.

Tips on caring for your feet

  • Wash your feet daily with warm (not hot) water and soap.
  • Gently pat (don't rub) your feet dry.
  • Use lotion, but not between your toes.
  • Change your socks and shoes once a day. Don't go barefoot.
  • Wear soft leather shoes (deerskin is best) that provide plenty of room for your toes.
  • If your toes rub each other, put lamb's wool between them.
  • To cut your toenails, first soak your feet in warm water for 10 minutes to soften your nails. Cut your nails straight across. Don't cut into the corners or close to your skin.
  • Keep your feet warm but avoid getting your feet too close to hot surfaces (water bottles, heaters, fireplaces).
  • Don't treat corns or calluses without first calling your doctor.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.

Other Organizations

  • American Diabetes Association 
    1701 North Beauregard Street 
    Alexandria, VA 22311 
    1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383) 


Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff.

American Academy of Family Physicians

Reviewed/Updated: 04/05
Created: 01/96