Eye Doctors: Optometrists and Ophthalmologists

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 02, 2023
3 min read

There are two main types of eye doctors: ophthalmologists and optometrists. Confused about which is which and who does what? Here's a look at how they're different.

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who is able to treat complicated eye problems with surgery or other procedures.

Ophthalmologists attend medical school. After that, they have a 1-year internship and a residency of 3 years. That's sometimes followed by a fellowship of 1-2 years.

These eye doctors offer complete eye care services:

  • Vision services, including eye exams.
  • Medical eye care, for conditions like glaucoma, iritis, and chemical burns
  • Surgical eye care, for trauma, crossed eyes, cataracts, glaucoma, and other problems
  • Diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions related to other diseases, like diabetes or arthritis
  • Plastic surgery, to raise droopy eyelids or smooth out wrinkles

In ophthalmology, there are several specialties. They include:

Pediatric ophthalmology. These doctors treat eye problems in children. They can perform ophthalmic surgery on children who have crossed eyes or cataracts. They can treat retina issues that happen when babies are born early and inflammation that can cause vision loss, among other issues.

Neuro-ophthalmology. This type of doctor deals with eye issues that are caused by problems in your brain or optic nerve. Those can include drooping eyes, uncontrolled blinking, migraines, and eyelid spasms.

Ocular oncology. These are doctors who diagnose and treat cancers of the eye, the eyelid, and the eye socket.

Optometrists focus on regular vision care and primary health care for the eye. After college, they spend 4 years in a professional program and get a doctor of optometry degree. But they don't go to medical school. Some optometrists get additional clinical training or complete a specialty fellowship after optometry school. They:

  • Perform eye exams and vision tests
  • Prescribe and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses
  • Monitor eye conditions related to diseases like diabetes
  • Manage and treat conditions like dry eye and glaucoma
  • Provide low-vision aids and vision therapy

There are specialties among optometrists. They include:

Pediatric optometry. These providers work with babies, toddlers, and children, using special techniques to test their vision.

Neuro-optometry. If you have vision problems that result from a brain injury, this is the type of optometrist you might visit.

Low-vision optometry. If you have low vision—that means you can't see well enough to perform your daily activities and your sight can't be corrected by glasses or contact lenses, medicine, or surgery—low-vision optometrists offer devices and strategies that can improve your quality of life.

You may see both an optometrist and ophthalmologist for eye care.

You could have regular eye exams and get glasses or contact lens prescriptions from your optometrist. Your optometrist might spot signs of a more complicated eye problem, like cataracts, during your exam. They'll refer you to an ophthalmologist if you need medicine or surgery to treat an eye condition.

You can also get eye exams and vision correction from an ophthalmologist, if you prefer to see a doctor for your routine eye care.

Opticians aren't eye doctors and can't give eye exams. They get a 1- or 2-year degree, certificate, or diploma. They fill the prescription your optometrist gives you for glasses or contact lenses. They also:

  • Check lens prescriptions
  • Provide, adjust, and repair glasses, frames, and contact lenses
  • Take facial measurements
  • Help decide which type of lenses and frames will work best
  • Order and check products, including contacts and eyeglass lenses

One type isn't automatically better than the other. The right choice depends on your needs. The best eye doctor for you should be:

  • Recommended by your doctor, friends, or family
  • Someone you like and trust

A good rule of thumb would be:

  • For primary eye care, you may wish to start with an optometrist. They'll refer you to an ophthalmologist if needed
  • If you think you need eye surgery for cataracts, glaucoma, or another eye disease, an ophthalmologist with the appropriate specialty would be a good place to start.