Diabetic retinopathy affects the small blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye and can cause vision problems and blindness if left untreated. Everyone who has diabetes is at risk of losing their sight through diabetic retinopathy.

Signs and symptoms

In the early stages, diabetic retinopathy will not affect your child’s sight. However, the condition can progress and eventually cause blurred or distorted vision and permanent sight loss.

How is it diagnosed?

Diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed by an examination of the back of the inside of the eye (the retina). This may involve taking digital images of the back of the eye. You will be referred to an ophthalmologist (eye specialist) if retinopathy is detected.

How often should my child be screened?

It’s important your child is screened at least once every two years after age 12 to ensure the condition is diagnosed and treated before your child’s vision is seriously affected.

If diabetes has been diagnosed before puberty, screening should start at age 12. However, an earlier examination may be required in some situations, e.g. poorly controlled diabetes.

Why is it important to screen for diabetic retinopathy?

Untreated diabetic retinopathy is one of the most common causes of sight impairment. Unfortunately there will be no symptoms until the condition is well advanced. Early detection (through regular diabetic retinopathy screening) allows for less invasive treatments and can help prevent or reduce sight loss.

The dilated retinal screening test

Your optometrist will look for signs of the condition during your child’s eye exam. He/she will:

  • check your child’s details and explain the procedure
  • check your child’s distance vision (visual acuity)
  • dilate your child’s eyes using special eye drops to enlarge their pupils. This will enable the optometrist to take photographs of the back of the eye. The drops take approximately 15 to 20 minutes to work and vision will be slightly blurred for several hours afterwards.
  • take a digital retinal photograph of both eyes. These images will be used as a baseline to monitor changes over time and can be shown to your general practitioner (GP).

How much will it cost?

Your optometrist may charge a small fee for the consultation and photographs.

What is the treatment?

Your ophthalmologist (eye specialist) will carefully explain the treatment options. Surgery and laser can be used to treat the disease. Early detection and treatment will mean better results for your child.

Care at home

The risk of vision loss through diabetic retinopathy can be reduced by ensuring your child:

  • controls their blood sugar levels
  • is screened regularly after age 12
  • takes all prescribed medicines
  • follows a healthy diet.

When to seek help

See your GP or optometrist if your child has any common symptoms.

In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

If you're not sure whether to go to an emergency department, call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) and speak to a registered nurse.

Developed by the Ophthalmology Service, Queensland Children’s Hospital. We acknowledge the input of consumers and carers.

Resource ID: FS147. Reviewed: November 2016.

Disclaimer: This information has been produced by healthcare professionals as a guideline only and is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your child’s doctor or healthcare professionals. Information is updated regularly, so please check you are referring to the most recent version. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.

Last updated: October 2023