Your eyes are a window to your health: Why you need regular exams

(BPT) - Like many Americans, you may be putting off regular health appointments like eye exams because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, your optometrist may have been closed for some time, depending on where you live.

It may seem less urgent to have an eye exam if you’re not experiencing vision problems, but more than 270 serious conditions can be detected — which may affect the way you see and your overall health. Most are asymptomatic, so an annual eye exam by a doctor of optometry is recommended to keep you healthy.

For those working — or attending school — from home now, increased screen time can cause eye strain, which can lead to symptoms such as headaches and blurry vision.

Whether you're experiencing digital eye strain or dry eyes, or if you have health conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, comprehensive eye exams are vital. Anyone with risk factors for glaucoma such as being over age 60, having a family history of glaucoma or physical injuries to the eye should have regular appointments for eye pressure. And being checked for cataracts from age 60 can help prevent loss of sight.

For kids, spending each day looking at screens and less time outdoors could also increase their risk of myopia (nearsightedness). Scheduling an eye exam is a good idea before the start of every school year.

Doctors of optometry are reopening

Practices are open nationwide to provide the full range of comprehensive eye health and vision care. If you're unsure about in-person appointments, your optometrist may offer telehealth consultations, but there is no substitute for an in-person comprehensive eye exam.

If you experience an emergency eye-related issue, like a painful scratch, contact your optometrist first rather than going to an emergency room. A 2017 study from the University of Michigan found that only about 6.7% of eye-related emergency room visits were for true eye emergencies, and the rest could likely have been treated by an eye care professional outside the ER. If there is an immediate threat to life or limb, patients should still go to the emergency department. Otherwise, call your optometrist first.

Preparing for an office visit

Plan ahead for any medical appointment. Offices may operate at reduced volume, giving priority to patients requiring urgent or emergency care. Practices have also adopted new sanitization protocols to ensure patient safety that may affect the timing of an appointment.

"Doctors of optometry, like all medical professionals, are adhering to guidance from the CDC as well as federal, state and local health directives to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission," said Dr. William T. Reynolds, president of the American Optometric Association (AOA). "Procedures patients can anticipate include screening for symptoms of COVID-19 and taking each patient's temperature upon arrival, limiting the number of people in waiting rooms and requiring everyone to wear face masks and/or gloves before entering."

Here are tips from the AOA to prepare for your visit.

  • When scheduling your appointment, ask about health and safety protocols.

  • If you do not need someone with you, attend your appointment alone to help the office manage physical distancing and safety.

  • Wearing a face mask or cloth face covering and gloves is strongly recommended, and may be required by your state or your optometrist.

  • Follow staff instructions on how to maintain safe social distancing.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth while in the office.

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after visiting public places or blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

  • Bring hand sanitizer in case you are unable to wash your hands.

  • Fill out paperwork in advance or online if possible to reduce time in the waiting room.

For insurance concerns

Check your current policy to determine what vision services are covered. Some health insurance plans cover eye exams, even if corrective lenses are not covered. Ask your employer about your benefits if they are unclear.

If you've just been laid off, you have until the end of the month to access your healthcare benefits. If you have no coverage, look into low-cost vision insurance at Healthcare.gov. Ask your doctor of optometry about out-of-pocket prices for services.

To find a doctor of optometry near you, check out AOA.org/doctor-locator-search.

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