Cataracts: symptoms, causes, risks and treatment

Nicole Herbert - B.Optom (UJ), N.Dip Optical Dispensing (CPUT)

Have you just been for your routine eye examination and heard that you have cataracts developing? Feeling a bit anxious about the news? Then this article is for you as I will go through what to expect from here on.

Firstly, I'd like to start by debunking the myth that cataracts are something that grows over the front of the eye. There is a very specific name for the yellowish growth that can be seen just next to the Iris (colored part of the eye) and it can grow over the eye, but this is called a Pterygium and it is very different to a cataract. Cataracts happen when the natural lens of the eye starts to cloud. The clouding prevents clear vision, even with the best possible spectacle prescription.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cataracts are the leading cause of avoidable blindness, making up 51% of blindness in the world, that's an astounding 20 million people (2010). The reason for the high rate of blindness from cataracts comes from the fact that there are many countries where people simply do not have access to this life changing surgery. This rate, as alarming as it is, is expected to increase as life expectancy increases.


Cloudy or dim vision      

  • Difficulty with night vision or in dark environments

  • Glare sensitivity

  • The need for additional lighting when reading or performing certain tasks

  • Fading or yellowing of colours

  • Halos around lights

  • Changes in spectacle prescription

  • Double vision in one eye


  • Aging: a common result of the aging process, with an estimated 1 in 5 people over the age of 65 having cataracts.

  • Eye injury or trauma: secondary to blunt force trauma, penetrating injury, infrared energy, electric shock and ionizing radiation

  • Medication: more specifically those used to treat inflammation eg Prednisone

  • Smoking: smokers are twice as likely to develop cataracts if they smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day

  • Congenital: some babies are born with it as a result of pregnant moms being exposed to German Measles

  • Eye disease: such as Uveitis which is an inflammation inside the eye

  • Poor nutrition: diets where there is insufficient antioxidants eg beta-carotene, selenium, Vitamins C and E


Diabetes and a higher BMI have been shown as additional risk factors for the development of cataracts. A reduction in cigarette smoking and UV exposure has been shown to prolong the onset of cataracts.


Treatment involves the surgical removal of the cloudy intra-ocular lens, and the insertion of an artificial lens, which is very successful with restoring sight.

The best way to make sure that you are not developing any cataracts is to keep up with your routine eye examinations. We look forward to seeing you at your next appointment.