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What Are Glaucoma Symptoms?

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on April 13, 2021

They vary by type.

Open-Angle Glaucoma, Chronic Open-Angle Glaucoma (COAG), Primary Open-Angle Glaucoma

These are all names for the same condition, which happens to be the most common type. With this condition, you might not have any symptoms until you lose a significant amount of vision. The first sign is often the loss of your side vision (the doctor will call this peripheral vision). It happens slowly, so you may not notice the changes.

Acute Closed- or Narrow-Angle Glaucoma

People often describe this as “the worst eye pain of my life.” Symptoms strike quickly:

This type of glaucoma is a medical emergency. See an ophthalmologist or go to an emergency room immediately. Damage to the optic nerve may begin within a few hours and, if not treated within 6 to 12 hours, it may bring severe permanent loss of vision or blindness and even a permanently enlarged (dilated) pupil.

Congenital Glaucoma in Infants

This usually shows up in newborns or during your baby’s first few years. Symptoms include:

  • Tearing, sensitivity to light, and eyelid spasms
  • A larger cornea and clouding of the normally transparent cornea
  • Habitual rubbing of the eyes, squinting, or keeping the eyes closed much of the time

Secondary Glaucoma and Other Forms

Symptoms depend on what's causing your pressure to rise. Inflammation inside your eye (the doctor will call this uveitis) can cause you to see halos. Bright lights might bother your eyes (you’ll hear the doctor call this light sensitivity or photophobia).

Eye injuries like corneal edema, bleeding, or retinal detachment can hide glaucoma symptoms.

If a cataract is the cause, your vision will have been worse for a while.

If you have had an injury to your eye, an advanced cataract, or inflammation in your eyes, your eye doctor will check often to make sure you don’t have glaucoma, too. Another common cause of secondary glaucoma is topical or systematic use of steroids.

How Do I know If I Have Glaucoma?

Tests are short and painless. Your eye doctor will measure your eye pressure with a gadget called a tonometer. They’ll give you drops that numb your eye so you don’t feel anything. Tell them if you’ve had refractive surgery like LASIK. It can affect your eye pressure reading.

Higher-than-normal eye pressure doesn’t mean that you have glaucoma. In fact, some people with normal pressure can have it, while others with higher levels may not. High pressure without damage to the optic nerve is called ocular hypertension. If you have this, your doctor will want to test your eyes often.

If they think you have glaucoma, your eye doctor will check your optic nerve for signs of damage. They’ll have you take a test that measures the sharpness of your side vision (they’ll call this your peripheral vision).  Special images (OCT) of the nerve that form the optic nerve can give clues to presence of glaucoma. 

Your child’s eye doctor will diagnose congenital glaucoma. The main sign is a cloudy cornea. Babies are checked for this at birth. If you suspect an eye problem, call an eye doctor.

When to Call the Doctor

 

  • Your eye is painful and red. It can be a sign of acute narrow-angle glaucoma, inflammation, infection, or other serious eye conditions. You may need immediate medical attention to prevent permanent eye damage or blindness.
  • You get drowsy, tired, or short of breath after you use eye drops to treat glaucoma. It could mean the drug is aggravating a heart or lung problem.

Tell your doctor what medications you’re taking. Certain drugs, even over-the-counter medications -- especially those used to treat sinus and cold congestion, and stomach and intestinal disorders -- may cause an acute closed-angle glaucoma attack. Bring a list of all your medications with you to the eye doctor.

You can prevent damae from glaucoma, but you can’t get vision back once it’s gone. That is why it's so important to get regular exams with an eye doctor, particularly if there is a family history of glaucoma.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Glaucoma Society.

Weinreb, R. Lancet, 2004.

Curcio, C. Journal of Comparative Neurology, Oct. 1, 1990.

American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Glaucoma Research Foundation.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: "Screening for Primary Open-Angle Glaucoma in the Primary Care Setting."

Mayo Clinic.

Distelhorst, J. American Family Physician, May 1, 2003. 

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