Our eyes are such an integral part of our lives. It’s almost impossible to number the ways we rely on them. From observing the differences between colors and textures to watching the emotions on another person’s face, our eyes provide a wealth of information to help us navigate our world. As one of our senses, our eyes and vision must be protected from potential health problems.

The eye is made up of many distinct parts. The parts responsible for sight are the cornea, pupil, iris, lens, retina, and optic nerve. The cornea is the clear dome-shaped part in front of the eye that bends light to help the eye focus. Light enters through the pupil, the small black hole in the center of the eye. The colored part of the eye, the iris, controls how much light the pupil lets in. Light then enters the lens, the clear inner part of the eye. The lens and the cornea work to focus light on the retina. The retina, located on the back wall of the inside of the eye, is a layer of cells that sense light and send signals to the brain.

Diagram of the eye with different parts labeled

A study from the National Institutes of Health found that “although 94 percent of Americans aged 12 and older have good vision, the remaining six percent, or 14 million, are visually impaired.” The study goes on to note that of this population, eighty-three percent can have this impairment corrected with glasses or contact lenses. Blurred vision, also known as refractive errors, is the most frequent eye problem. This includes nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism (distorted vision from all distances). Presbyopia is the loss of the ability to focus up close, so reading smaller text becomes difficult. It usually occurs among adults ages forty to fifty. Thankfully, these conditions can be remedied with corrective glasses, contact lenses, or in rare cases, surgery.

There are more serious eye conditions to be aware of. The Vision Health Initiative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, “The leading causes of blindness and low vision in the United States are primarily age-related eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.” Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a disease that can blur central vision. AMD can make tasks like cooking, driving, or reading very difficult to do. Another vision issue is a cataract, which is the clouding of the eye’s lens. It is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. Another condition is diabetic retinopathy, which affects those who have diabetes. Lastly, glaucoma is a set of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss. The symptoms are so subtle that you may not notice them, and glaucoma can only be detected through a dilated eye exam.

Many factors determine how often you need an eye exam. For children ages five or younger, a pediatrician will perform a vision screening to check for common childhood eye issues such as amblyopia (lazy eye) or strabismus (crossed eyes). For a comprehensive eye exam, children can see a pediatric ophthalmologist. A pediatrician will also recommend an eye exam for adolescents. According to an article on eye exams from Mayo Clinic, for adults that “are healthy and…have no symptoms of vision problems, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends having a complete eye exam at age 40, when some vision changes and eye diseases are likely to start. Based on the results of your screening, your eye doctor can recommend how often you should have future eye exams. If you’re 60 or older, have your eyes checked every year or two.”

Explore the chart below with information from Benjamin Teller, OD, of Eye Rx to learn some of the signs and symptoms of potential eye trouble:

Symptom Definition Possible Causes
Dry eyes Eyes that feel gritty, irritated, or scratchy. This is normally due to eyes not producing enough tears to stay lubricated.
  • Bell’s palsy
  • Blepharitis
  • Chronic dry eye
Excessive tearing Producing too many tears or having continually watery eyes
  • Allergies
  • Bacterial keratitis
  • Blocked tear duct
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Dry eye
Flashes Flashing lights or lightning streaks in a person’s field of vision
  • Detached or torn retina
  • Migraines
Floaters Lines, specks, dots, or webs that appear in a person’s field of vision. They are usually harmless in small amounts.
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Eye lymphoma
  • Posterior vitreous detachment
  • Torn or detached retina
  • Uveitis
Headaches Pain in the head, neck, or face
  • Angle-closure glaucoma
  • Migraines
  • Refractive errors
  • Photokeratitis
Light sensitivity Discomfort with bright light, also known as photophobia
  • Allergies
  • Cataracts
  • Corneal abrasion
  • Keratoconus
  • Migraines
  • Strabismus
Night blindness Having trouble seeing at night
  • Cataracts
  • Nystagmus
  • Retinitis pigmentosa
Red eyes Inflammation of the eye’s small red blood vessels that gives the eyes a red or pink appearance
  • Blepharitis
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Eye allergies
  • Uveitis
Swelling Irritated and/or inflamed eye tissue or lid
  • Blepharitis
  • Blocked tear duct
  • Cellulitis
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Corneal ulcer
  • Graves’ disease
  • Periorbital hematoma (black eye)
  • Scleritis

Along with regular eye exams, eating foods rich in vitamins and nutrients is also important. In an article for Medical News Today, Zawn Villines states, “The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), published in 2001, found that certain nutrients — zinc, copper, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene — may reduce the risk of age-related decline in eye health by 25 percent.” Beta-carotene, the orange pigment found in fruits and vegetables, is converted by the body into vitamin A. Vitamin A maintains our photoreceptors and can prevent dry eyes. Eggs are a great source of lutein and zeaxanthin, which can decrease the risk of age-related sight loss. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the retina and can decrease intraocular pressure or fluid pressure inside of the eye. Vitamin C can counteract macular degeneration, reduce cataract progression, and lower the risk for glaucoma. Vitamin E can protect the eyes from AMD, and in some cases, cataracts. Finally, zinc has anti-inflammatory properties and can also assist with preventing AMD and cataracts when combined with other antioxidants like vitamins C and E.

There are many ways to protect your eyes. First, you should wear sunglasses, even on cloudy days. Wear glasses that offer one-hundred percent protection from UVA and UVB rays. Second, always wear protective eye gear when working with hazardous or airborne materials. Protective goggles are perfect for construction work and for sports like ice hockey or racquetball.

Staring at a computer screen can also cause problems. Give your eyes a rest by taking a break from the computer screen every twenty minutes. During this break, look at something twenty feet away for twenty seconds. You should also be mindful of how you sit at your desk. Your eyes should be level with the screen to prevent looking downward. Taking these precautions will strengthen and protect your vision for years to come.

Kelly Izdihar Crosby is an artist and freelance writer living in Atlanta.