What Are Dilated Eye Exams, and Why Are They Important?

Dilated eye exams can be a critical step in a comprehensive eye exam. These exams reveal valuable insight into the health of the retina and other components and functions at the back of the eye. What are dilated eye exams, and why are they important? 

What Are Dilated Eye Exams? 

A dilated eye exam is done after the eye doctor uses specially formulated eye drops to dilate (open up) the pupils. When the pupil is undilated, there is not a lot of light streaming into the eye. Therefore, the retina can be difficult for the eye doctor to evaluate thoroughly. Dilating the pupil allows for more light for better visibility of the retina and a more thorough evaluation. The exam effectively checks for eye diseases and conditions but also helps detect certain vision challenges, such as farsightedness or nearsightedness. 

Key Factors the Doctor May Consider Before Dilation  

Your eye doctor may determine a dilated eye exam is necessary for several reasons, such as your:

  • Age: Risks associated with some eye conditions increase as you get older. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), individuals 60 years and older need a dilated exam every one to two years. 
  • Ethnicity: Certain ethnic groups have an increased risk of certain eye diseases. For example, individuals with a Black or Hispanic background may be at a higher risk of glaucoma, so a dilated eye exam should be given every one to two years, starting at age 40. 
  • Eye Health: A history of issues and diseases affecting the retina can mean a heightened risk of future eye problems. 
  • Overall Health: Certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, elevate the risk of specific eye health problems. 

Dilating the Eyes Helps Detect Certain Conditions and Diseases  

Opening the pupils allows the optometrist to adequately detect certain diseases and conditions that affect the eye, such as:  

Schedule your dilated eye exam today. 

When Is Dilation Not Necessary? 

Eye dilation is a common practice but not always necessary. More modern tools can also offer a closer, clearer view of the back of the eye. For example, in some unique situations, the eye doctor may prefer to see the back of the eye when the pupil is not dilated. Retinal imaging is used to collect a digital image of the optic disc, blood vessel and retina to assess for signs of disease. 

How Long Does It Take for the Eye to Dilate? 

Everyone’s eyes are different in how they respond to the eye drops used to dilate the eyes. Generally, it takes 15 to 30 minutes for the pupils to respond and fully relax or open. 

How Long Does Dilation Last?

The dilation can last about four to six hours, depending on the patient. Some people see the effects wear off relatively quickly, while others may have a more extended response to the eye drops. 

What Are the Side Effects?

The most common side effect is blurred vision. This stems from the fact that the pupils will not regulate how much light enters the eye. Also, since more light is allowed through, this can cause some light sensitivity. Some people even feel a tightening sensation that seems to affect their eyelids. 

Mild allergic reactions are also possible, which can cause mild swelling around the eyes or a bit of minimal redness. A more severe allergic reaction, which is rare, may lead to flushing of the face and cause dry mouth. 

How to Deal with Side Effects of Dilation

After a dilated eye exam, it is best to take a few steps to protect the eyes and stay safe. Be sure to: 

  • Protect your eyes by wearing sunglasses
  • Plan for a bit of time off work if needed
  • Arrange for someone to drive you home in case of blurred vision 

How Often Is a Dilated Eye Exam Needed? 

Dilated eye exams should be performed at different intervals depending on the patient. These exams are common practice with comprehensive eye exams but are specifically recommended in certain situations. According to the NEI and American Academy of Ophthalmology, a dilated eye exam is best:

  • Every one or two years if a patient is over the age of 60
  • Every one or two years if a patient is African American and 40 or older due to glaucoma risks
  • Within five years of type 1 diabetes diagnosis 
  • Immediately with type 2 diabetes diagnosis  

Diabetic women who are considering pregnancy should also receive a dilated eye exam either before getting pregnant or during the first trimester. 

Schedule an Eye Exam Today

Contact the Gulf Coast Vision Center in Pace, Milton or Crestview or at one of our Pensacola locations at Nine Mile or East Hill to schedule a comprehensive eye exam today.