What is an Ophthalmologist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
3 min read

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of eye and vision problems. What is the difference between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist, then? What about opticians? These three types of eye care specialists have rather similar-sounding names and overlapping job descriptions. It can be confusing at first glance. Here’s the difference:

  • Opticians can help you choose frames for your glasses and provide information about types of lenses and lens coatings. They cannot give eye exams, write prescriptions, or diagnose or treat eye problems.
  • Optometrists can examine your eyes, test your vision, prescribe glasses or contacts, and diagnose and treat many eye disorders and diseases. They are not medical doctors or surgeons but can prescribe certain eye-related medications. 
  • Ophthalmologists also provide eye exams, vision testing, and prescriptions for glasses or contact lenses. As medical doctors, they can diagnose and treat any and all eye problems. They can perform eye surgery and provide follow-up care.

When giving a comprehensive eye exam, an ophthalmologist will assess your vision and, if needed, find your eyeglass/contact lens prescription. They will test how your pupils respond to light, check the alignment of your eyes, and make sure the muscles that move your eyes are working properly. They will look for any early signs of eye problems such as cataracts or glaucoma and examine the back of your eye (retina) and optic nerve.

Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat injuries, infections, diseases, and disorders of the eye. Treatments can include medication taken orally (by mouth) or topically (in the eye), surgery, cryotherapy (freeze treatment), and chemotherapy (chemical treatment).

Ophthalmologists attend medical school then receive several years of specialty training in the medical and surgical care of the eye. Their educational path includes:

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Internship (1 year)
  • Residency in ophthalmology (3 years)

After their residency, many ophthalmologists complete a on to two year fellowship to specialize in a field such as pediatrics (treating children), cataract surgery (removal of a cloudy lens), or treatment of glaucoma (diseases that damage the optic nerve).

As they are the only medical professionals who can treat all eye disorders, ophthalmologists see a wide variety of eye conditions, including:

How often should you have an eye exam? What are symptoms that indicate you may have an eye problem that needs to be checked by an eye doctor? The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends:

Baseline Exams

As children’s eyes are growing and changing rapidly, they should receive a vision screening. If deemed necessary, they can be referred to an ophthalmologist for a comprehensive eye exam.

Adults who have healthy eyes and excellent vision should have four comprehensive eye exams: one in their 20s, two in their 30s, and one at age 40. These checkups may allow the ophthalmologist to catch an eye disease or vision changes early on. By the time you notice symptoms, you may already have some vision loss. Early treatment of eye problems can protect your eyesight. 

People who are at a higher risk of eye disease may need to get an eye exam more often. This can include people with diabetes, high blood pressure, or a family history of eye problems. After age 65, your eyes should be checked every one to two years. Regardless of age, people who wear contacts should have a complete eye exam every year.

Calling About Eye Problems

Contact your ophthalmologist right away if you have any of the following:

  • An eye injury or infection
  • Eye pain
  • An increase in floaters and flashes of light
  • A change in vision, such as blurriness or seeing double
  • Sudden vision loss, even if your sight returns a few seconds later