The Impact of Autoimmune Illnesses on the Retina
Originally published by Retinal Consultants Medical Group
Autoimmune illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis and lupus, can have a significant impact on vision health, causing retinal damage or functional changes. If you’re living with an autoimmune disorder, it’s crucial to understand the various risk factors that these diseases pose for your eyes so that you’re better equipped to seek out medical help from a retina specialist.
Autoimmune Illnesses Affecting the Retina
Normally, your immune system has white blood cells that help defend against harmful substances, called antigens. The immune system produces proteins known as antibodies to combat them, however, the immune system can sometimes mistake healthy tissues for potential antigens. When this affects the ocular tissues, including the retina, it can cause a wide range of issues, including retinal inflammation and cellular damage. Of the more than 80 known autoimmune disorders, your retina is susceptible to a wide array, including:
Behcet’s Disease – This rare disorder involves blood vessel inflammation and may come and go, resulting in uveitis (a form of eye inflammation that impacts the middle layer of the eye). It may affect the retina, causing redness, pain, and blurred vision, typically in both eyes.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) – About 1.2 million Americans have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Of these, an estimated 70% of HIV patients will experience vision problems, especially those with weak immune systems. Among the conditions targeting the retina are:
- HIV retinopathy, which involves blockages or bleeding in retinal blood vessels
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis, which can destroy the retina and optic nerve if untreated, causing retinal detachment and leading to blindness
Lupus – This condition can cause inflammatory flare-ups, affecting the retina and other eye structures and causing blurred vision, headaches, sore eyes, and light sensitivity. Lupus may lead to other autoimmune conditions as well, including choroiditis, which is inflammation of the choroid (i.e., the part of the eye responsible for supplying the outer retina with nutrients). Lupus also increases your risk of having a retinal detachment or developing retinal vasculitis (i.e., inflammation of the retinal blood vessels). Both retinal detachment and retinal vasculitis pose serious threats to vision.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – This disease involves the immune system attacking the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers, impairing your body’s ability to communicate effectively with the brain. Although typically associated with musculoskeletal symptoms, MS can also impact vision health; in some cases, MS is discovered by eye doctors during an eye exam. Patients with MS may experience double vision, uncontrollable eye movements, and optic neuritis (i.e., loss of vision due to optic nerve inflammation).
The Importance of Eye Exams with Autoimmune Diseases
If diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, it’s important to be aware of your potential risk of developing vision problems and seek treatment as soon as possible. This is especially true if you start to experience issues such as cloudy or blurry vision, pain, dryness, or light sensitivity. You may need more frequent exams, as often as every 6 months, if you have symptoms, or take certain autoimmune disorder medications, like Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine).
Protect Your Retinal Health from Autoimmune Illnesses
Various autoimmune disorders can affect your retina and vision health. If you suspect or have already been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, it’s important to understand its symptoms, so you know when to seek medical treatment. If you’d like to schedule a consultation with a retina specialist, find a Retina Consultants of America doctor near you and schedule an appointment.