Diabetic retinopathy (DR) and diabetic macular edema (DME) are two common vision conditions related to diabetes. While both can lead to vision loss, they are different eye conditions.

The term diabetic eye disease refers to a group of eye problems that can affect people with diabetes. These include conditions such as DR and DME.

DR is a potential complication of diabetes that can lead to vision loss. It can also result in further complications, including DME.

In this article, we will discuss the differences between DR and DME, as well as how they relate to each other.

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While both conditions are eye problems that can occur in people living with diabetes, they are different. Most notably, DR describes when high blood sugar levels damage the retina. This is a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye.

DR is a progressive condition that causes further damage to the retina as it progresses through different stages. A person may not notice symptoms in the early stages of DR. However, others may notice changes in their vision, such as trouble reading or seeing faraway objects.

The most advanced stage of DR is known as proliferative DR (PDR). At this stage, the retina receives little oxygen, which leads to the development of new, fragile blood vessels. These new vessels can leak and form scar tissue, which may result in complications.

As such, PDR can lead to problems with the macula. This is the part of the retina responsible for central vision, color vision, and fine detail. However, while complications are more likely to occur as DR progresses, problems can occur at any stage of DR.

Scar tissue and leaking fluid that occur due to DR can make the macula swell, which is known as DME. This can cause symptoms such as blurry vision and is one of the most common causes of sight loss in people with diabetes.

Additionally, while the macula is part of the retina, DME is not a type of retinopathy. “Retinopathy” is the medical term that refers to diseases of the retina, such as DR. Instead, swelling of the macula is a complication of DR.

Swelling of the macula can occur for many reasons, such as injury, infection, or inherited retinal conditions.

However, DME specifically occurs as a complication of DR. As such, a person with DME will also have DR. A 2022 review and analysis of seven studies suggests that 5.5% of people with diabetes have DME.

As DME is a potential complication of DR, it is possible for a person to have DR without DME. A 2021 review of 59 population-based studies indicates that among individuals with diabetes, the global prevalence of DR is around 22%.

The best strategy for a person to prevent DR is to manage their diabetes. This means keeping blood sugar levels within a suitable range, typically by eating an appropriate diet, doing regular physical activity, and following guidelines for insulin or other diabetes medication.

A person can work closely with their diabetes care team to manage the condition. Tests such as hemoglobin A1C can also help them monitor their blood sugar levels. Maintaining A1C levels within a person’s recommended range can help prevent or manage DR.

In addition to managing blood sugar, it is also advisable for a person to manage their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

As DR is a potential complication of diabetes that impacts the eyes, it is essential that a person living with diabetes attends yearly eye exams. An eye doctor can check their eye health and identify any conditions in the early stages when they are easier to treat. They can also monitor eye health for an individual with existing eye problems.

Click here to learn more about diabetic eye screening.

If a person living with diabetes begins to notice changes to their vision, such as blurriness, experts recommend they attend an eye exam. It is also best for a person with an existing DR diagnosis who experiences worsening symptoms to contact their diabetes care team.

As DME is a potential complication of DR, contacting a doctor and catching the condition early can help prevent DME and other complications.

Diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema are potential eye complications a person with diabetes may experience. While both occur due to high blood sugar levels damaging the eyes, they are separate conditions.

DR occurs due to damage to blood vessels in the eye. This can lead to reduced blood flow and the growth of fragile blood vessels that may leak and form scar tissue, which impacts the retina. When leaky vessels cause fluid to build up in the macula, the center of the retina, a person may develop DME.

As such, DR occurs first, and without treatment, a person may experience complications further affecting their vision, such as DME.