What Your Eyes Say About Your Health
WebMD investigates conditions that have an effect on the eyes, from color changes to swelling.
Things an Eye Doctor Can See
- Arterial plaques. Atherosclerosis is the disease process that causes cholesterol plaques to form in arteries, including the carotid arteries in the neck and the coronary arteries. Bits of cholesterol (usually from the carotids) can break away from these plaques and travel via the bloodstream to the eye, where they lodge in small arteries in the retina, the delicate network of blood vessels and nerve cells at the back of the eye. Kastl explains that these minute yellowish blockages, known as Hollenhorst plaques, can be evidence of severe atherosclerosis. Ultrasound testing of the carotid arteries may be needed to pinpoint the plaque or plaques.
- Optic nerve abnormalities. The optic nerve, which transmits visual information from the retina to the brain, is visible at the rear of the eye. It’s supposed to be pink. A pale optic nerve can be an early manifestation of MS, as well as evidence of a brain tumor or aneurysm, Williams says.
- Retinal defects. Various medical conditions, notably diabetes and high blood pressure, can damage the blood vessels and nerves in the retina (as well as elsewhere in the body). This retinal damage -- which can cause blindness -- can take several forms, including tiny hemorrhages, leaks of yellowish fluid, and puffy-looking whitish patches known as cotton wool spots, Iwach says. White patches on the retina can also be a manifestation of cytomegalovirus infection -- possibly a sign of AIDS. In some cases, the retina is overgrown with tangled and highly fragile blood vessels -- the result of a process known as neovascularization.
If you notice one of the signs listed above in your own eyes, alert your doctor. “We look at the physical findings and then listen to the patient’s story line and family history,” Iwach says. “Then we decide what testing is necessary.” He says the last thing you want to do is ignore one of these signs -- especially one that has shown up recently.