Red Flags of Vision Changes

The eye is one of the most complex organs in the human body, delivering 80% of the information we perceive about the world around us. Because sight is one of our most valuable senses, it’s important to know when to seek medical attention if you experience vision changes. Here are red flags you should be aware of.

1) Sudden vision changes

Most harmless vision changes -- like needing reading glasses as you get older -- happen gradually. So, if your vision changes suddenly, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. 

Examples of vision changes include a sudden loss of vision in one eye, blurry vision, dark spots or a reduction of your visual field (what you can see out of the corners of your eye when you’re looking straight ahead.)

Sudden vision changes can indicate a problem inside the eye, like a retinal detachment, or a problem in the brain, like a stroke or a brain tumor.

2) Vision changes accompanied by pain

Any vision change accompanied by eye pain should prompt you to seek immediate medical attention.

Painful vision changes can be caused by an eye injury, a foreign body, acute glaucoma (a dangerous increase in eye pressure), an infection, or inflammation of structures within the eye, including the iris and optic nerve.

In many cases, if the cause of a painful vision change is not promptly addressed and treated, it can lead to a permanent loss of vision.

3) “Flashers”

Flashers are sudden bursts of light that can appear in your central or peripheral vision.  Anyone who experiences an abrupt onset of flashers, or flashers that don’t go away, should seek prompt medical attention.

Flashers can indicate a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), where the vitreous, the gelatinous substance that fills the eye, pulls away from the retina. In some cases, PVD can damage the retina as it separates from it.

Flashers can also indicate a torn or detached retina, which can result in a permanent loss of vision if not quickly repaired by an ophthalmologist.

4) Vision changes accompanied by skin changes

If you experience a loss of vision or blurred vision accompanied by skin changes around the eye, seek medical attention as soon as possible, since this can indicate a serious infection.

Small red bumps or blisters along the temple or eyelids can indicate Zoster Ophthalmicus, where Zoster, the virus that causes shingles, infects the eye. Zoster Ophthalmicus also often causes eye redness, eye pain, light sensitivity, and increased tearing. Oral antiviral medications and steroid eye drops are usually prescribed to treat the infection and preserve the patient’s vision.

Red, warm, swollen, painful skin around the eye can indicate orbital cellulitis, which happens when bacteria infiltrate the soft tissue, fat, and muscles around the eye. This condition can lead to irreversible eye damage and vision loss if it’s not quickly diagnosed and treated. Other signs and symptoms of orbital cellulitis include a fever, loss of vision, pain with eye movements and a bulging eyeball.

5) Vision changes accompanied by neurologic changes

If you develop vision changes along with neurologic changes, seek immediate medical attention. Examples of neurologic changes include dizziness, balance problems, a facial droop, speech difficulties or weakness of an extremity.

Causes of these signs and symptoms include a stroke, an aneurysm, a brain tumor, or a dangerous infection like meningitis, all of which can have catastrophic consequences if not immediately diagnosed and treated.


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Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant