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Glaucoma Signs and Symptoms: Early Clues

Angelike Gaunt
By Angelike GauntMay 19, 2020

Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. Although anyone can get glaucoma, older adults are at higher risk of developing it.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that cause increased pressure in the eye, resulting in damage to the optic nerve that can lead to permanent vision loss. There are at least 60 different types of glaucoma.

Glaucoma affects about 3 million people in the U.S., but only half of those are aware they have it, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation. This is because early signs and symptoms of glaucoma often go unnoticed.

Early diagnosis and treatment are important to slow the progression of glaucoma, which can affect one or both eyes. Read on to learn about steps you can take to help your aging loved one detect glaucoma early and prevent irreversible vision loss.

What are the first signs and symptoms of glaucoma?

There are several different types of glaucoma, but the most common type — open-angle glaucoma — usually doesn’t cause any signs, symptoms, or pain. This is why glaucoma is commonly known as “the sneak thief of sight.”

It’s critical to get regular eye exams by an ophthalmologist, an eye doctor who specializes in treating diseases and performing surgeries. This is especially important if you or your loved one are in a high-risk group (see below).

Signs and symptoms of open-angle glaucoma

In open-angle glaucoma, the most common type of glaucoma, the eye doesn’t drain fluid properly. Over time, eye pressure increases and damages the optic nerve.

This type of glaucoma happens gradually, and it usually doesn’t cause pain or vision changes at first. Vision loss associated with open-angle glaucoma begins with peripheral — or side — vision loss, but those who have it may not notice it until the damage to the optic nerve is significant.

Signs and symptoms of acute angle-closure glaucoma

Acute angle-closure glaucoma, also called closed-angle glaucoma or narrow-angle glaucoma, occurs when the iris blocks the eye’s drainage angle, making the eye pressure rise very quickly. Acute-angle closure glaucoma is especially common in older adults, particularly those who have untreated cataracts.

Acute angle-closure glaucoma is a medical emergency that can damage the optic nerve and cause permanent vision loss if it’s not treated promptly.

Go to the emergency room or see an ophthalmologist right away if you or your loved one experience these signs and symptoms:

  • Blurred vision that happens suddenly
  • Severe eye pain, often described as an intense, throbbing pain, along with reddening of the eye
  • Headache around the eyes or the forehead
  • Nausea and vomiting accompanied by severe eye pain
  • Seeing halos around lights, such as rainbow-colored circles around lights or unusual sensitivity to lights

Angle-closure glaucoma can also progress gradually. This type of glaucoma, called chronic angle-closure glaucoma, usually doesn’t cause symptoms until the damage to the optic nerve is severe or until an acute event occurs.

Are older adults at risk for glaucoma?

Anyone can get glaucoma, but seniors are at higher risk. Other risk factors for glaucoma include:

  • Being older than 60, which increases your risk of glaucoma by six times
  • Being African American and older than 40.
    African Americans are six to eight times more likely to have glaucoma than Caucasians.
  • Being Hispanic and older than age 60
  • Being of Asian descent, which increases your risk of angle-closure glaucoma
  • Having a family history of glaucoma
    Open-angle glaucoma, the most common type of glaucoma, is hereditary.
  • Having diabetes, which doubles your risk of having glaucoma.
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Using steroids
    Studies show that people who use high dosages of steroid inhalers to control severe asthma are at increased risk of glaucoma.
  • Having previous eye surgeries or injuries, especially blunt trauma that bruise the eye
  • Being severely near-sighted

How to prevent glaucoma-related vision loss in seniors

Early detection and ongoing monitoring of eye health can help your aging loved one lower their risk of glaucoma-related vision loss.

Understand the risk factors for glaucoma

Do you have a family history of glaucoma? Does your elderly parent have diabetes or high blood pressure? Are they African American, Hispanic, or of Asian descent? If your loved one is at increased risk of glaucoma, they should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam. Talk to your ophthalmologist about how often your parent’s eyes should be checked.

Even if you or your loved one are not in a high-risk group, it’s still important to have a dilated eye screening by age 40. Early diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma can prevent the progression of the disease and prevent permanent vision loss.

Manage diabetes and blood pressure

Talk to your aging parent about managing their diabetes, which includes monitoring blood pressure and keeping it under control. Don’t skip doctor’s appointments, and be sure to take medications as prescribed. Eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, and not smoking can help.

Manage and treat glaucoma

If your loved one has been diagnosed with glaucoma, it’s important to slow the progression of the disease by taking medications as prescribed by the doctor. Remind your parent to keep follow-up appointments and exams to help prevent any additional vision loss.

Glaucoma-related vision loss can affect quality of life and the ability to perform important, everyday tasks such as walking, reading, or driving. If your aging parent has glaucoma and needs help, consider whether moving to an assisted living community can allow them keep a certain level of independence while getting the help they need.


American Academy of Ophthalmology:

Glaucoma Research Foundation:


Angelike Gaunt
Angelike Gaunt
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