You might think that if your vision seems good, there’s no need to visit the doctor, but regular eye exams are essential for continued eye health. Vision changes are often gradual, so you may not even notice if your eyesight has worsened over the years. However, this kind of problem can affect your ability to work, learn and enjoy life. Some minor symptoms can even be the first sign of serious issues like glaucoma and cataracts.
Thankfully, early detection can help immensely, and prescriptions offer a simple way to combat vision problems. Having your eyes checked regularly can help you stay on top of your eye health and usually takes less than two hours. But what does “regularly” actually mean? Depending on your age, family history, lifestyle and other factors, you may need to get your eyes checked more or less often.
How Often Should You Get Your Eyes Examined?
According to the American Optometric Association, healthy adults under age 65 without any risk factors should have a comprehensive exam — not just a screening — at least every two years. If you’re over 65 without any risk factors, you should have an exam at least once a year. If symptoms appear, which we’ll cover in the next section, head to the doctor sooner.
Many risk factors can call for more frequent exams, such as:
- A personal or family history of eye problems: Many eye conditions and health issues run in families. Regular exams can help monitor and detect these problems.
- Belonging to certain racial or ethnic groups: If you belong to a specific racial or ethnic group, you may be at a higher risk for some eye-related illnesses. Black people, for instance, are at a higher risk for eye diseases like cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. Hispanic and Latino people have a higher risk for conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, which can lead to similar situations. If you belong to one of these groups, your doctor may suggest more frequent exams.
- Certain health conditions: Of course, if you have an eye condition like glaucoma or cataracts, more frequent eye exams are often necessary. Other conditions, such as diabetes and heart conditions, are linked to eye problems and may call for more frequent exams.
- Working a job that can stress or harm your eyes: Many everyday jobs come with risks to your vision or health. These jobs usually involve spending your days in the sun or around chemicals, digital screens, debris or high winds. Some employers will offer guidance on protecting your eyes, but frequent eye exams can help you stay on top of any adverse effects.
- Some drugs: Some prescriptions and over-the-counter medications have vision-related side effects, so regular eye exams can help you monitor your eyesight and stay alert.
- Prior eye surgery or trauma: If you’ve ever had an injury to your eye or undergone surgery, you will likely need to have your eyes checked more often.
- Wearing contacts: Contact lenses involve touching your eyes and keeping the lenses clean, which means they have more risk for infection and irritation. You’ll need to get your eyes checked more often if you wear them.
- A high or progressive refractive error: High or progressive nearsightedness can be severe or change quickly, so frequent exams may be necessary to adjust your prescription and keep your vision as strong as possible.
If you fall into any of these categories or have another concern, talk to your ophthalmologist about how often you should get eye exams. Remember, vision problems aren’t always clear to the individual, especially if they occur gradually. Ophthalmologists have years of training and can identify problems with much more precision.
Frequency of Eye Exams for Children
Kids grow quickly, and there are a few different times that you’ll want to have your child’s eyes checked, assuming they do not have any risk factors:
- Birth through 2: In the early years, have your child’s eyes checked between 6-12 months of age.
- 3-5: Once they hit toddlerhood, you’ll want to have your child take an eye exam at least once between the ages of 3 and 5.
- 6-17: Have your child take an eye exam before first grade, then at least once a year until age 17.
The risk factors for children are different than those for adults. Ask your doctor for a recommendation if your child has any of the following risk factors:
- Birth issues, such as prematurity, low weight, fetal distress during labor and prolonged supplemental oxygen
- Family history of certain health issues, including farsightedness, nearsightedness and metabolic or genetic diseases
- Exposure to certain substances or illnesses during pregnancy, such as alcohol, illicit drugs and infections like rubella and toxoplasmosis
- Neurodevelopmental disorders or academic performance problems
- Exposure to drugs with potential vision-related side effects
- Health conditions with potential vision-related manifestations
- Known eye problems, including cortical visual impairment, high or progressive refractive error, strabismus and anisometropia
- Wearing contact lenses
Detecting vision problems in kids is especially important since much of their learning occurs visually. A vision problem can affect how children learn, socialize and play. They may not be able to see the front of the classroom clearly or make out the words in their book. They could also miss social cues from a classmate’s body language or be hesitant to explore their environment because they can’t see very far. Early and regular eye exams can help you intervene and ensure your child has the best possible vision for strong growth and development.
Remember, children grow quickly, so eye health can change rapidly. If your child wears glasses or contacts, their doctor may want to see them more often. Be sure to ask for a suggested schedule.
Frequency of Eye Exams for Older Adults
As we get older, our eyes go through more changes. After the age of about 40, you may start experiencing presbyopia, or the loss of the ability to focus on nearby objects. Presbyopia tends to worsen with age and is often the reason adults wear reading glasses. Older adults may also be more prone to vision problems due to medical conditions and medications that may have vision-related side effects.
Presbyopia can be tricky to spot because the change occurs gradually, so you may not notice if your close-up vision gets just a little worse each day. Regular eye exams give you undisputable results that tell your doctor how your vision is progressing. After age 65, you should get your eyes checked every year or as recommended by your doctor. Presbyopia can keep progressing, and you’re more likely to develop cataracts or other vision-related issues.
Signs You Should Get Your Eyes Checked
Are dry eyes a sign that you should get your eyes checked? How about headaches or blurry spots in your vision? These are all examples of symptoms that an eye exam can investigate. If you see any of them, an ophthalmologist may be able to prevent them from progressing and take action to correct the underlying issue. The same goes for the following symptoms:
- Obstructed vision: If you see any disruptions to your normal field of view, like flashes of light, dark spots or floaters, head to the doctor, especially if the symptom comes on quickly. You may even want to visit the emergency room if you have sudden flashing or dark shadows in your vision. In some cases, fast treatment is critical for a successful recovery.
- Headaches or eye pain: Everyone gets headaches or eye strain every once in a while, but if these symptoms are recurring or you have severe pain or strain, it could be related to your eye health. An eye exam can rule out potential problems.
- Dry, itchy and/or red eyes: Although dry eyes could come from something as simple as allergies, they could also occur because of conditions like dry eye syndrome or conjunctivitis. An exam can confirm the cause and help you get some sweet relief.
- Watery eyes: On the other hand, an ophthalmologist’s exam can also help if your eyes are too watery.
- Sudden sensitivity to light: Light sensitivity can be frustrating, and a comprehensive eye exam can help identify problems and signs of ocular disease. If you’re having this symptom, try to get to a doctor quickly, as some conditions can cause permanent effects if not treated.
- Blurred vision or problems seeing at night: Either of these issues could be signs of other conditions or fixable through prescription lenses. An exam can help determine the best course of action for getting clearer vision or preventing deterioration.
- Double vision: Always visit your doctor if you start seeing double. This could be a more severe symptom that should be addressed quickly.
You should also consult your doctor if you receive a diagnosis for a chronic condition like diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. They can affect eye health, so check in with the doctor to learn what you should look for and how often to come in.
As with most health conditions, check with your doctor when in doubt. Even if you’re on the fence about visiting, it never hurts to call and ask for a suggestion.
Signs You Should Get Your Child’s Eyes Checked
Kids can’t always tell you when something’s off. You’ll need to be observant to monitor signs of eye problems in children, especially in their younger years. Some problems are visible, so look for issues like inflammation, swollen or crusted eyelids, crossed eyes or one eye that looks in another direction. Pay attention to what they say, too. If your child frequently says their eyes hurt, burn or itch, they’re dizzy or nauseous or everything looks blurry, they could be hinting at an eye problem.
Kids can also give you clues based on how they act. Look for behaviors like:
- Rubbing their eyes.
- Tilting or thrusting their head forward.
- Closing or covering one eye.
- Difficulty with close-up work, such as reading, homework or playing with toys.
- Blinking more often or seeming cranky with close-up tasks.
Eye Exams vs. Eye Screenings
When we say you should get your eyes checked, we’re referring to a comprehensive eye exam. Vision screenings, on the other hand, are used in many situations, like school programs and driver’s license testing. You can even take an eye test online to renew your prescription. However, these tests primarily check your visual acuity, or how sharp and clear your vision is. They don’t dig deeper into your eye health and are not substitutes for regular comprehensive exams.
Comprehensive or complete eye exams use sophisticated equipment and are administered by professionals. When you take a complete eye exam, you can benefit from several specific tests:
- A medical history review: A trained professional will go over your medical history and look for anything that might call for special considerations.
- A vision test: If you take a vision screening, you might be given the Snellen eye chart, in which you read letters of different sizes from far away with one eye covered and with both eyes. You’ll receive this test in a comprehensive eye exam, too.
- Tests to determine your prescription: If you don’t have 20/20 vision, your doctor will need to find your refractive error to determine your prescription for glasses or contacts. The refractive error occurs when the shape of your eye prevents light from focusing on your retina in the back of your eye. You may get this test if you have farsightedness, nearsightedness, astigmatism or another condition that affects your vision. Other tests that help determine your prescription include retinoscopes, autorefractors and phoropters.
- Eye focusing and teaming tests: These tests will help your doctor determine how well your eyes focus and work together.
- Eye health tests: Your doctor will also want to check on the anatomy of your eye to make sure it’s healthy. They may use a slit lamp test to see your eye in more detail and look for signs of conjunctivitis, cataracts or macular degeneration. Tonometry tests check for glaucoma by checking the pressure inside of your eye, and pupil dilation opens up your pupil to give the doctor a better look at the back of your eye.
An ophthalmologist looks for many different issues with these tests, and appointments typically last only 1-2 hours. Spending an hour or two at the doctor’s every few years is a small price to pay for healthy eyes!
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