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What to Expect With Cataract Eye Surgery

written by: Jacquelyn Gilchrist • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 3/17/2010

When the lens of your eye becomes cloudy, it means that you have cataracts. Not everyone who has cataracts needs surgery, but for those who do, being prepared can help bring peace of mind. Cataract eye surgery carries some risks, but it may help improve your vision.

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    What Are Cataracts?

    Cataracts occur when the lens of your eye becomes cloudy. This typically develops slowly, and may occur in one or both eyes. You may even be unaware of having cataracts initially. Over time, you may notice some symptoms, such as gradual vision loss, blurry or dim vision (especially at night) and double vision. You may notice that you're more sensitive to light, or that you notice "halos" around light sources. You may also need a bright light than usual to read.

    The biggest risk factor for developing cataracts is your age. If you are older than 65, you are at significant risk of developing a cloudy lens. Other risk factors may also include if you have a family history of cataracts, if you have previously suffered an eye injury or inflammation, or if you have had eye surgery. You may also be at a greater risk if you are a smoker and if you have diabetes.

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    When Should You Have Surgery?

    The decision to have cataract eye surgery is yours alone. Discuss the possibility carefully with your eye doctor and consider all the possible risks. If your cataract is not causing vision problems for you, you likely don't need to have surgery yet. Consider whether you are still able to see well enough to drive safely, perform your job, do housework, or otherwise maintain your independence. If cataracts are interfering with your daily activities, you may wish to have the surgery.

    In certain situations, surgery is recommended even if you are still able to see fairly well. Cataracts that develop in younger people tend to worsen more rapidly. This can also occur in patients with diabetes. In these situations, a delay in surgery may not be advisable.

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    Preparation For Surgery

    There are some basic guidelines to follow when preparing for any surgery. Inform your doctor of all medications you take, as well as any over-the-counter supplements. You may be advised to stop taking certain medications for a period of time prior to the surgery. You should also inform your doctor of any other medical conditions you have.

    About a week prior to the cataract eye surgery, your doctor will run an ultrasound test to measure your eye. This is a painless procedure. You may also need to take antibiotic eye drops for a day or two before the surgery. Before the procedure, arrange to have someone drive you home. It also can't hurt to have someone help you around the house for a couple days afterward.

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    The Procedure

    The procedure itself typically does not take longer than an hour. Your doctor will numb the area and give you a sedative so that you do not feel pain. Your cloudy, natural lens will be removed from the eye. An artificial lens will take its place. This implant is also called an intraocular lens, or IOL. You will not be able to tell the difference between the IOL and your natural eye (except that your vision should be improved).

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    Recovering From Surgery

    During your recovery, follow your doctor's post-operation instructions carefully. Avoid strenuous activity for the first week. Do not rub or otherwise apply pressure to the eye. Be careful not to splash any water in your eye, as this might result in an infection. You'll likely have a protective shield over your eye for the following day. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotic eyedrops for use during your recovery.

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    Risks

    While it's normal to feel some mild discomfort and itching for a couple of days after the surgery, you should call your doctor immediately if you notice any serious side effects. These may include persistent pain, vision loss, nausea, vomiting, flashes of light, and excessive coughing. Some patients may develop complications from surgery, however this is not common. These complications may include infection, bleeding, inflammation, swelling, glaucoma, retinal detachment, and a second cataract. You may be at a greater risk for complications if you have an additional eye disease or other medical condition. Despite the possible risks and complications, for many patients, cataract surgery is a more attractive alternative than vision loss.

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