How to Know When to Get an Eye Exam

I spy with my little eye one regular exam that many people overlook. We're talking about knowing when to get an eye exam. Regular eye exams are an important part of optometric health. 

It's important to obtain routine eye exams, per the American Optometric Association's (AOA) guidelines, to evaluate your eye health and vision. The American Optometric Association is a federation of state, student and armed forces optometric associations that represents more than 36,000 optometry professionals. 

It's also important to understand the difference between general vision screening programs and comprehensive eye exams. While screenings have their place, they are no substitute for thorough, regular eye exams. 


The Importance of Regular Eye Exams 

Your vision is precious, and maintaining eye health is one way to preserve those peepers for years to come. Additionally, eye exams can help detect other health issues. 

For instance, some of the other conditions optometrists look for during an eye exam include: 

  • diabetes;
  • high cholesterol;
  • high blood pressure;
  • glaucoma;
  • eye muscle imbalance;
  • vision disorders;
  • eye disease; and
  • macular degeneration. 

"Vision exams are also a great way to keep tabs on what's happening in your body. Your eyes are the only place in your body that provide a clear view of your blood vessels, which can tell your doctor a lot about your overall health," explains Vision Service Plan, one of the leading providers in vision and eye care benefits. 

Furthermore, regular eye exams have the potential to head off problems before they begin. The National Commission on Vision and Health reported that comprehensive eye exams would help more children succeed in school, leading "to better school achievement and health outcomes, which lead to more productive and healthier lives across the lifespan." 


What Constitutes a Comprehensive Eye Exam 

General vision screenings are usually administered by staff at school, pediatric offices or a regular physician's office. The primary purpose of this exam is to identify individuals who have undetected vision problems, then refer them for further evaluation with an optometrist. 

Vision screenings are limited in scope and are only meant as a preliminary test. The AOA cautions: "Even if a child or adult passes a vision screening, they shouldn't assume that they don't have an eye health or vision problem. Professional examinations are the only effective way to confirm or rule out the presence of any eye disease or vision problem." 

In contrast to a screening, a comprehensive eye exam is one performed by an optometrist or ophthalmologist using specialized equipment and procedures. The test administrator will have the specialized training needed to make definitive diagnoses and prescribe treatments. 


During a comprehensive exam, the administrator will do the following: 

  • review your and your family's health history;
  • measure visual acuity;
  • test eye movements and eye function;
  • check depth perception, color vision, peripheral vision and how pupils react to light;
  • test refractive status to determine the presence of nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism;
  • evaluate your eyes' ability to focus;
  • prescribe medication, glasses and/or contacts; and
  • order additional tests as needed. 

Recommended Eye Exam Frequency 

"You may be surprised to learn that no universal standard exists for the frequency of eye exams. Recommendations differ among individual eye doctors, as well as among the various professional associations (American Optometric Association, American Academy of Opthalmology, etc.)...eyes can change very quickly, in ways that only an eye doctor may detect. And the earlier an eye condition is caught, the earlier treatment can begin," explains Gary Heiting, OD on All About Vision. 


The AOA provides recommendations to which many optometrists around the nation adhere. They recommend eye exam frequency based on age: 

  • birth to two years – at six months of age;
  • two to five years – at three years old, children who wear glasses or contacts should receive an eye exam every year;
  • six to 18 – before first grade and then every two years thereafter;
  • 18 to 60 – every two years, if you wear glass or contacts, you'll want to get an exam every year, though; and
  • age 61 and older – every year. 

When More Frequent Eye Exams Are Advisable 

If a child is at risk for eye disease, an optometrist generally will recommend more frequent eye exams. 

Risk factors that would necessitate a higher frequency of eye exams: 

  • premature birth or low birth weight;
  • mother who was infected with rubella, venereal disease, herpes or HIV when she gave birth;
  • certain developmental delays;
  • a family history of eye disease;
  • crossed eyes; and
  • other conditions or diseases. 

Like children, adults who are at risk for eye disease should get a comprehensive eye exam more frequently than most people. According to All About Vision, if any of the following factors apply to you, speak to your doctor about the frequency of your exams: 

  • a family history of glaucoma, macular degeneration or other eye disease;
  • the presence of diabetes or high blood pressure;
  • "a visually demanding occupation";
  • a job that poses dangers to your eyes;
  • taking medication with side effects that affect your vision; or
  • previous eye injuries or surgeries. 

Urban Optiques, a prominent Detroit eyewear distributor, recommends seeing an optometrist for an exam immediately if you notice any of the following: 

  • blurry vision;
  • difficulty focusing;
  • headaches;
  • eye pain that lasts more than a few days
  • eye pain that occurs during movement;
  • constant squinting to attempt to see better;
  • sensitivity to light; or
  • signs of eye infection, such as discharge, itchiness or redness. 

Keeping Your Eyes in Good Health 

In addition to obtaining regular eye exams, there a numerous ways you can foster good eye health. Here are few tips the AOA recommends to help keep your eyes in good condition: 

  • Use proper eye protection on the job, while working around the house and while playing sports. 
  • Follow good computer viewing practices in order to prevent Computer Vision Syndrome. You can speak to your optometrist about this if your job requires long and frequent computer use. 
  • Wear eye protection to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays. You'll want sunglasses that block out at least 95 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation and screens out at least 75 percent of visible light. 
  • Consume a diet high in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin to help avoid macular degeneration and cataracts. The best sources to get these nutrients include dark green, leafy vegetables, broccoli, orange peppers, corn, peas and tangerines. 

To locate an optometrist in your area, ask friends, family or a primary care physician for referrals. You can also search the AOA's physician database for a list of accredited clinics.