Although more than 3 million people in the United States have glaucoma, awareness of this eye disease, how it starts, and how it progresses isn’t widespread.

The Glaucoma Research Foundation says January’s Glaucoma Awareness Month, can help people become more knowledgeable about this disease. Glaucoma can eventually lead to blindness, but obvious symptoms of it are almost nonexistent. For that reason, glaucoma is known as a silent or sneaky disease.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in people over 60. The disease causes fluid to build up in the eye which can damage the optic nerve and cause irreversible damage. The disease has some hereditary traits, and it can affect one eye but not the other.

The good news is if glaucoma is caught early, significant damage can be prevented, saving the patient’s eyesight. Regular eye screenings are vital to finding the pressure buildup in the eye, so if any patients have a history of glaucoma in their family, they should be aware of how important these screenings are. According to The Glaucoma Foundation, age alone is also a risk factor, and glaucoma is more commonly found in people over age 40 rather than those in younger groups.

There are other risk factors to be aware of. Preexisting conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, an eye injury, long-term steroid use, and nearsightedness can predispose someone to glaucoma. In addition, those of African, Hispanic, Latino, and Asian descent have an increased risk of developing one or both of the two types of glaucoma—angle-closure glaucoma or normal tension glaucoma.

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If you or any of your patients notice any vision changes, it’s wise to consider the possibility of glaucoma. By the time symptoms develop, some damage has occurred, so it’s essential to get any symptoms checked early. Things to look for include any blurred vision, cloudy or dark spots in the field of vision (including peripheral), eye pain, or even headaches.

According to the American Glaucoma Society, treatments for this eye disease include anything from medications and eye drops to reduce the swelling in the eye caused by fluid buildup. Advanced cases may require surgery to help drain the excess fluid in a permanent manner. This can include a laser surgery to improve the drainage capability of the eye.

With treatment, eye damage can be slowed, but some low vision can still happen, even if the final result isn’t blindness. People need to learn how to live with the disease and manage the resulting symptoms as much as possible. Working as a team with a good ophthalmologist can help, but the patient’s entire medical team can also act as a resource and support for managing glaucoma for the long-term.

As a nurse, you can help patients become aware of this disease and the risks associated with it. And in your personal life, you can help your family and friends, as well as yourself, keep up with screenings to catch any early signs of the condition.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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