Eye symptoms and vision problems

As you get older, your eyesight may diminish. You may need to wear glasses or contact lenses - or boost your prescription every few years. But what if a vision change is sudden or different? Here's some insight on what may be the problem if you're experiencing any of the following:

NOTE: If you experience any new or troubling eye symptoms, visit your doctor or ophthalmologist to rule out any potentially serious problems.

Before reading on, check the EMERGENCY EYE SYMPTOMS chart to determine whether you need to seek immediate medical attention for your eye symptoms.


Call 9-1-1 if:

  • you have temporary or continued partial or complete blindness in one or both of your eyes
  • you experience temporary or continued double vision
  • your vision is suddenly impaired by blind spots, halos around lights, or other areas of distortion
  • it feels like a shade is being pulled down or a curtain pulled across your vision
  • you experience eye pain, especially if your eye is also red

Seek medical attention if you experience the following symptoms of vision change:

  • gradual loss of vision sharpness
  • blurred vision when viewing objects near to you or far from you
  • difficulty seeing objects to your side
  • difficulty seeing at night or when reading
  • difficulty telling colours apart
  • eye discharge or itching
  • vision changes that seem to be associated with a medication you take (Note: don't stop taking the medication before talking to your doctor)

You should also see your health care provider if you have diabetes, a family history of diabetes, or a history of any eye disorder.

Vision change: Blurry or reduced vision

"My vision is blurred or reduced."
Blurred or reduced vision may be due to eye disorders, including glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, or age-related macular degeneration. Inflammation or infections (such as pinkeye caused by bacteria) can temporarily blur vision, as can an injury like a black eye, a cut or abrasion on the cornea, a detached or torn retina, or a benign spot on the cornea called a pterygium. Blurriness can also be associated with nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism.

Vision change: Floaters or flashes

"I see floaters or flashes in my field of vision."
Flecks or spots that seem to move across your field of vision are referred to as floaters. You may try to wash your eyes out, hoping to remove the specks. But these small clumps of cells are not on the surface of your eyes: They actually float inside of your eyes, and it is their shadow that you see cast onto your vision. Floaters become more common as we age, as the gel-like fluid that fills the inside of the eye changes (called the vitreous gel) and pulls away from the eye's inside surface. The vitreous gel clumps to form floaters.

Flashes are caused by changes in the same vitreous gel that causes floaters. You may have seen similar flashes in your vision when you rub your eyes. As the vitreous gel pulls on the retina it can create a flashing effect. Flashes can also occur during the visual "aura" symptoms of a classic or ocular migraine, where the flashes are a result of blood vessel spasms in the brain.

Floaters and flashes may be harmless. However, they may indicate a serious problem with the retina, like a tear or a detachment, or some other underlying problem. You should always have an eye exam to rule out any damage to your retina. Also, see your doctor as soon as possible if you notice a sudden increase in the size and number of floaters or a sudden appearance of flashes.

Vision change: Halos around lights

"I see halos around lights."
Seeing a halo effect around lights (sometimes referred to as seeing starbursts around lights) can be a sign of cataracts, a clouding of the eye's lens. Halos may appear during the progression of glaucoma, a disease caused by damage to optic nerve, as well as in diseases that affect the cornea (the clear, round dome that covers the iris and pupil).

Vision change: Shadow or curtain across vision

"I see a shadow or dark curtain moving across my vision."
If you feel as though a curtain or shadow is being pulled over your field of vision, you may be experiencing a detached or torn retina. The retina lines the back of your eye and may be damaged over time as we age or by swelling or nearsightedness. In addition to the curtain or shadow effect, a torn or detached retina may also cause floaters and flashes and a sudden decrease in vision.

Vision change: Tunnel vision

"I have tunnel vision."
Has it ever felt as though you were losing your peripheral (side) vision? This feeling of "tunnel vision" may be caused when there is damage to the optic nerve, such as in glaucoma. Tunnel vision can also be a symptom of the visual "aura" that precedes some migraines, as well as a sign of the progression of the inherited eye disorder retinitis pigmentosa.

Vision change: Double vision

"I have double vision."
Migraine aura may be the reason for some temporary instances of double vision (diplopia). The after-effects of a black eye could also briefly double your vision. Older eyes may become more prone to developing cataracts, a clouding of the eyes' lenses that can cause double vision with one eye. One of the most common causes of acute double vision among older people is a neurological condition called microvascular cranial nerve palsy (MCNP), which almost always resolves on its own.

Amy Toffelmire