child getting eye exam slit lamp
Children at risk for certain eye diseases should have a comprehensive eye exam, not just a visual acuity test. (Photo source: iStock

How many doctors do you see on a regular basis? Many of us probably go to the doctor for an annual physical. We also see specialists regularly as well. But what about an eye doctor? When was the last time you had an eye exam?

If you haven’t seen an eye care professional in the few years, perhaps you should put it on your “to do” list. Not only is a comprehensive eye exam essential to catch eye problems early, but it is also a good way to get a glimpse of your overall health. An eye doctor can look into your eyes and see the signs of chronic diseases. It’s not just about making sure you can see. It’s how you see and how you want to keep seeing.

How often should you have an eye exam?

Acknowledging that your eyes truly are a window to your overall health, adults should get a thorough eye exam every 1-2 years. During a routine exam, eye care professionals don’t just check to see if glasses or contact lenses are needed. They also check for eye diseases. 

And, they are often the first ones to spot a number of other chronic diseases, including

  • high blood pressure,
  • high cholesterol,
  • diabetes,
  • autoimmune disease
  • some types of thyroid disease
  • and even certain cancers.

A regular eye exam is especially important if you’re considered at risk for eye and vision problems.

At-risk people are usually those with diabetes and high blood pressure, or who have a family history of eye disease like glaucoma or macular degeneration. But you might be surprised to know that “at-risk” also includes contact lens wearers and people whose jobs are highly demanding visually. If you stare at a computer screen all day, you may also be considered at risk so you’ll want to be sure to get a thorough eye exam every year.

How do you know if you have an eye issue?

So how do you know if you’re experiencing an eye issue? You may not. Many eye diseases have no symptoms until the disease process is well advanced. Typically, vision issues manifest with blurred vision while driving or reading.

You may also find yourself squinting at the television, feeling visual fatigue by the end of the day, or getting frequent headaches. If it’s been more than 1-2 years since your last visit to your eye doctor, it’s possible your prescription may be out of date.

Are online eye exams good enough?

You may come across websites or smartphone apps that offer online eye exams. These services are definitely tempting. You can get your eyes checked from the comfort of your home instead of making an appointment with your eye care professional. However, you shouldn’t rely on an online test to give you a complete picture of your eye health. Here’s why:

  • An online exam can only show what vision correction you may need. In fact, the American Optometric Association has warned against online exams specifically because they aren’t thorough enough. For example, your phone or computer can’t do an eye pressure test to check for glaucoma, which means key indicators of potential health problems could be missed.

A comprehensive eye exam should include several different tests—many of which, today, have to be done face-to-face with the proper equipment.

Related Content: 

-Do You Know the 3 Main Causes of Blindness in the U.S.?
-Vision Correction: Risks and Benefit
-Dealing with a Rare Eye Disease in the Midst of COVID

What type of tests are included in comprehensive eye exams?

In addition to the routine eye pressure test, a comprehensive eye exam should include several different tests—many of which must be done face-to-face with the appropriate equipment. These include a slit lamp exam, which uses a unique microscope to review the structures of your eye. It often also includes pupil dilation, which can help detect conditions like retinal detachment, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and glaucoma.

During your comprehensive exam, your doctor will also review your medical history to identify any risk factors for eye disease. He or she will then determine the appropriate tests for you. For instance, glaucoma, a group of eye diseases where damage to the optic nerve can cause blindness, is hereditary. So if you have a family member with glaucoma, chances are good your doctor will test you for it as well. If fact, many eye doctors include this test in all routine eye examinations.

Patients living with diabetes may develop retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that is a result of leakage from blood vessels. It can cause blindness. Diabetics may also be at higher risk of developing cataracts, a gradual clouding of the eye’s lens.

Older individuals may be at risk of experiencing AMD, an eye disease that causes damage to the macula, which is a tiny spot near the center of the eye that is responsible for seeing objects straight ahead.

During your exam, your eye doctor may test you for one or more of the following:

  • vision sharpness
  • color-blindness
  • eye movement
  • depth perception
  • a peripheral vision test

All of these tests are helpful in diagnosing potential vision issues and determining the best method to address them. Based on your results, your doctor might also suggest additional testing.

What should I know about children’s eye exams?

While you’re making your eye exam appointment, don’t forget about your kids. The American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus recommend that children receive at least 3 eye exams by age 6:

  • As a newborn
  • Between 6 and 12 months of age
  • About 3-3/12 years old

These exams can be done by an ophthalmologist or by other doctors with proper training.

Children’s eyes should also be screened for visual acuity at the time they enter school. because problems with visions can affect learning. After that, they should be examined every 1 to 2 years, depending on whether they need vision correction.

What are reasons for having a comprehensive eye exam in childhood?

Triggers for a comprehensive eye exam include the following: 

  • Failing or unable to perform a vision screening.
  • A school nurse or a pediatrician or family physician refers the child
  • The child has certain medical conditions that have a high risk for eye problems, such as
  • A family history of certain hereditary eye conditions, such as
    • strabismus
    • amblyopia
    • congenital cataracts 
    • congenital glaucoma 
    • retinoblastoma
  • The child has a learning disability, developmental delay, neuropsychological condition, or behavioral issue.
A child should also have a comprehensive eye examination if they have certain symptoms or behaviors, such as
  • Avoiding or disliking reading
  • Short attention span
  • Difficulty throwing or catching a ball, copying from a chalkboard, or tying their shoes
  • Pulling a book in close to their face or sitting too close to a TV
  • Lots of blinking or eye rubbing

Another reason to ensure your kids get regular eye exams is that nearly 80% of a child’s learning happens visually. Too often, a child who can’t see well is misdiagnosed with a totally unrelated behavioral problem like ADHD when they may only need a pair of glasses.

What should I tell my eye doctor during an eye exam?

Just like any other doctor’s appointment, an eye exam should include a robust dialogue with your doctor. It should include any current or past visual symptoms. There should be full transparency about the amount of time you spend staring at screens and tablets. It should also include a discussion of whether you follow guidelines for the proper use and cleaning of contact lenses and whether or not you sleep with your contact lenses in.

Sharing your lifestyle and habits with your eye doctor will allow him or her to provide guidance on optimal eye health for you. Some questions you may want to ask your eye doctor include:

  • Does my vision seem stable?
  • Are prescription sunglasses a good option for me?
  • How do I address tired eyes?
  • What kind of eye drops do you recommend, if any?

If it’s been a while since you or your kids had an eye exam, don’t put it off any longer. Make an appointment with an eye care professional today to help ensure good vision for life.

Related content: Do You Know the 3 Main Causes of Blindness in the U.S.?


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This article was first published on 8/26/2016. It was reviewed and updated on 5/24/20 for republication.

Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO
Dr. Howard Purcell, O.D., F.A.A.O. in his role at Essilor of America, works very closely with Essilor’s network of optometrists and optometry schools, training doctors to take on and prepare for the future of the vision care industry. He has extensive experience working alongside his father as a second-generation optometrist in Florida for ten years and served as a clinical investigator and consultant to the contact lens industry. Dr. Purcell is a Diplomate in the Cornea and Contact Lens Section of the American Academy of Optometry and a Distinguished Practitioner in the National Academies of Practice. Dr. Purcell is known for his energetic and enthusiastic style, making him a popular lecturer internationally. He has traveled to six continents and to most of the schools and colleges of optometry in North America. He attended all of the major eyecare meetings in North America presenting and discussing issues of interest to practitioners and students, primarily around those preparing for The Practice of the Future. He has spoken with national media outlets like Anderson Live hosted by Anderson Cooper, and Wake up with Al to focus consumer attention on topics like UV and blue light protection.


  1. My wife and I want to make sure that our sons have a healthy time growing up in all aspects possible. It really helped when you stated that most eye diseases cannot be detected with symptoms and may be found late because I know a lot of my peers and friends telling stories about their kids getting glasses due to habits that they could have stopped with regular checks and routines. I’ll be sure to keep your article in mind when looking for optical clinics that can regularly get my kids checked up. Thank you!

  2. Hello! Your article displays a wide range of advice & ideas. Would you recommend to patients with any eye diseases any specific tips to follow during this COVID-19 crisis?
    Thank you

  3. My sister told me that she found out that sometimes she has a blurry vision. I like how you explained that when you get an eye exam, your medical history is also checked. I will recommend her to get an eye exam so she can find out what her problem is.

  4. It’s great that you elaborated on the importance of getting a yearly eye exam. I will have to consider getting my husband and me into to see an optometrist soon. Thank you for talking about taking care of your vision.

  5. I never knew that a short attention span is a symptom of vision problems in kids. My sister’s children were a little distracted at school and knowing that could be because of eye problems may help her. It could be a good idea to take your kids to the ophthalmologist for an exam to avoid future problems.

  6. Thanks for pointing out that undergoing all the needed tests will help diagnose the real cause of the problem and to be treated the best way possible. I will share this information with a friend of mine to convince him to undergo an eye exam. It appears that he started having an eye pain ever since he worked at a construction site, and I am worried that something might have been in his eye that he doesn’t know. This will solve the root cause of the problem to make him work comfortably again.

  7. Thank you for pointing out that an eye exam should include many different tests. My family hasn’t had eye exams in years but now I feel the need to make sure everyone gets one as soon as possible. I’ll have to look into finding the best eye doctor in my area.

  8. I like that this pointed out that almost 80% of a child’s learning happens visually, and that poor vision can cause learning problems. For the longest time my friend was in denial that she needed glasses during high school. I think that another benefit of regular eye exams is that they can catch things you may be in denial of.

  9. It was really helpful to know that during the eye examination not only will the professional determine whether the person needs glasses or not, they will also determine underlying diseases. If that is true, then I will schedule myself for an eye exam right away. I have been struggling with vision changes, headaches, and fatigue for a while now, and I want to know what’s going on and if I need surgery to fix it. Thanks!

  10. It’s great to know what is included at an eye exam. I didn’t realize a good doctor will look at my medical history and see if I’m in any danger. I haven’t been to the eye doctor in a long, long time, so I’ll have to change that.

  11. I thought it was cool how you mentioned that 80% of a child’s learning is visual, so it’s important to have their eyes checked. I have a daughter that’s going to be starting kindergarten later this year, and I want to make sure she is completely prepared for school. I’ll definitely add an eye exam to my checklist of things to have done for her so that we can be sure her eyes are functioning properly.

  12. I never considered that a routine eye exam can also detect chronic diseases like high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and even some types of cancer. I’ve always assumed that an eye exam would just to see if you’d need glasses or not. Regular visits to an optical professional could be a great way of catching something early. Early detection of health problems seems like a great way of staying healthy and avoiding larger problems if left undetected. I guess I should schedule an eye exam soon, it’s been awhile for me.

  13. I used to think you didn’t need to see an optometrist unless you already had eye issues, and as a child, my parents never had my eyes looked at. Thanks for your point about how you can find signs of chronic diseases just by having an eye exam, that changes my view point. It seems to me like leaving an unknown issue untreated would eventually cause a more severe problem. If anyone is in a position where they haven’t had an eye exam recently I think they should find a good doctor.

  14. I didn’t know that having diabetes puts you at higher risk for developing eye problems. This is good to know since a friend of mine was just diagnosed with diabetes, but I don’t think he knows that diabetes could negativity impact his vision. I’ll be sure to see if he knows that getting yearly eye exams are more important than ever for him now.

  15. I did not know that an eye doctor can use your medical eye history to see if you might be prone to future eye disease. Getting checked every year would be helpful to catch eye problems before they get worse. My parents both wear glasses, so I think I will start getting them checked just in case.

  16. Howard, it’s good to know that I should get an eye exam annually. I’ve recently been noticing that my vision has started to blur. I definitely think that I should look for an eye doctor that could give me some personal treatment options that could help to clear up everything.

  17. I thought it was really interesting how the article mentions that having regular eye exams is important, especially if you have diabetes or high blood pressure. My good friend has diabetes, but I think he has good eyesight still. What kind of preventative measures would an eye doctor recommend for someone like him to keep his eyes in good health?

  18. If my brother never got his eyes checked when he did (just a few months ago), and continued his habitual pattern of being on the computer 12+ hours a day mostly work and some gaming and occasionally sleeping with contacts on, he literally would’ve been blind not even a month later. After being told so many times to get his routine eye checkup, (generally once a year yet it had only been two years since his last checkup) the optomotrist said there was a 90% chance he could’ve gone blind within the next three weeks if he hadn’t gotten his treatment for his eye infection which was caused by simply being in front of a computer too often, always on his phone, and wearing his contacts more than he should. When you think about it, his habits are not all that all uncommon in the current year of 2016 where everything is becoming digital. Everyone is always on their phones/computers as often as they can be whether it’s for work or pleasure. It’s becoming so common we don’t think about how it can affect our visual health. This articles a good reminder that negligence to have routine checkups might be more detrimental to your health than you might have thought, well at least for me.

  19. I haven’t had new glasses for probably close to 10 years. I had a exam about 1 1/2 years ago. They were paid for through the Lyons Club. They do not work. I went back and had another exam and it was barely any different. I have United Healthcare for supplemental insurance and Medicare. UHC pays for exam but small portion of glasses. My prescription is trifocals and the pair I’m wearing now we’re about 400 with everything. I am on a smartphone and it is really hard to read. When I drive it is blurry and after I have been reading or on phone. I can’t afford another pair as I’m on disability and never make ends meet. Any suggestions on getting new glasses. I don’t have credit cards to charge and not very good credit to get a loan. Thank you.


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