How well you see influences how you move around in the world. Your vision can impact your ability to read important signs; your performance at work or school; the way you drive; how you interact with other humans. Poor vision can also lead to injuries and accidents. And if you’re struggling to see, it can be incredibly frustrating and impact your mood and your relationships with others.

Further, your vision correlates with your overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who struggle with their eye sight are more likely to have diabetes, poor hearing, heart conditions, high blood pressure, lower back pain and strokes. They also face a higher risk of injuries, falls and even depression.

One of the best things you can do to help your vision is to schedule regular eye exams. During those appointments, an optometrist or ophthalmologist can test your vision, talk to you about any changes or concerns, discuss your family history and find ways to help you see your best. This month is National Eye Exam Month, which is a great time to book an appointment for yourself and your family to have your vision checked. Before your appointment, read on for some common questions and answers related to eye exams.  

What’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?

An optometrist is a healthcare professional who specializes in eye and vision care, and can carry out eye exams and diagnose and treat eye and vision problems. Optometrists earn their Doctor of Optometry (OD) after attending a four-year optometry school. While they are qualified to handle many eye conditions, they are not trained in surgery, and may refer patients to an ophthalmologist for complex conditions or surgical needs.

 An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor. They went to medical school, completed an internship and a residency and maybe even a fellowship specializing in a particular area, such as glaucoma. They can diagnose and treat eye conditions, prescribe medications and perform surgery. They can also write prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses.

What happens during an eye exam?

During an eye exam, your eye doctor will conduct a number of tests to check your vision, including assessing how well you can see at a distance and how well you see up close. They may also perform tests that check your ability to see color and to gauge your peripheral vision. In addition, they may shine a light in your eyes to see how you react; and they may put drops in your eyes that enlarge (or dilate) your pupil so that they can see your retina and your optic nerve. By the end of the exam, the eye doctor will be able to tell you if you might benefit from glasses or contacts, and if there are any other concerns regarding your eyes.

Who should get an eye exam?

Pediatricians and family doctors conduct eye screenings on children to look for different indicators of eye health. If they find anything abnormal or concerning, they can refer the child to an ophthalmologist for more in-depth testing. Further, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) suggests that children should have a comprehensive eye exam completed if they fail a screening or a screening can’t be done; if they have a vision complaint, abnormal behavior related to vision or are at risk for certain eye conditions; if they have a learning disability, developmental delays, behavioral issues or neuropsychological challenges. In addition, the AAO says that healthy adults without vision challenges should seek out a vision exam by an ophthalmologist once in their 20s, twice in their 30s and at age 40, which is when signs of vision change often occur.

What can an eye exam detect?

An eye exam can determine whether someone might need glasses or contact lenses to correct their vision if they are experiencing “refractive” disorders, such as nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. An eye doctor can also identify any number of eye conditions. Some of the more common conditions include age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, amblyopia and strabismus. Identifying and treating eye conditions early is an important step towards maintaining good eyesight.

If you have vision loss, or you think you might, you’re not alone. More than three-quarters of adults in the United States rely on some form of vision correction. Further, according to the CDC, approximately 6 million Americans experience vision loss to some degree, and 1 million experience blindness. Of those, 1.6 million are younger than 40. This month, set a goal to make an appointment with an eye doctor, so that you can learn about your vision, and maybe even improve it.