Many people do not understand the difference between an ophthalmologist, an optometrist and an optician. Each plays an important role in providing eye care. But they are quite different from each other, based on what they are trained to do.
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathy (D.O.). They are trained and licensed to treat all eye diseases and conditions. They are the only eye care providers who can practice both medicine and surgery. They complete at least 12 years of training, including 4 years of college and at least 8 years of additional medical training. Many ophthalmologists specialize in a certain part of the eye or in treating specific diseases. Ophthalmologists also do scientific research to find causes and cures for eye diseases.
An optometrist is a doctor of optometry (O.D.), trained and licensed to provide some aspects of eye care. They complete at least 3 years of college and 4 years of optometry training from a college of optometry. They are licensed to do eye exams and vision tests, prescribe and dispense corrective lenses, detect some eye problems, and prescribe medicine for some eye diseases. They cannot perform surgery or prescribe some medicine in most areas.
An optician is not an eye doctor. They prepare, measure, and adapt the fit of eyeglass or contact prescriptions written by an ophthalmologist or optometrist. An optician has a minimum of a 2-year degree in Opticianry or a 6,000-hour apprenticeship education and is licensed in their state.
When Should You See An Ophthalmologist?
Here are some situations when you should see an ophthalmologist.
- You have had an eye injury.
- You have symptoms of eye disease. These symptoms include:
- Blurry or distorted vision, double vision, or loss of peripheral (side) vision
- Seeing floaters (that look like black strings or specks), flashes of light, or halos (rings) around objects
- Having what seems to be a curtain or veil blocking your vision
- Problems with the eye itself, such as bulging of one or both eyes, misaligned (crossed) eyes, excess tears, or changes to your eyelid
- Eye pain
- You are at least 40 years old. A full eye screening is recommended at age 40. This screening will tell you if you are at risk for eye disease.
- Your primary care provider or optometrist refers you.
- Your ophthalmologist recommends regular visits to monitor your eye health.
With many eye diseases, you may not notice any problems with your vision for months or years. Regular visits to your ophthalmologist are important to find problems as they develop.
When To Have An Eye Exam
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends eye exams at these stages:
Babies (pediatric vision screenings that can be done by a pediatrician, nurse, primary care doctor, ophthalmologist)
- Before 6 months old
- Between 6 months old and until the child is old enough to follow directions to have their vision tested
Children (pediatric vision screenings that can be done by a pediatrician, nurse, primary care doctor, ophthalmologist)
- 3-4 years old
- 4-5 years old
- Every 1-2 years after age 5
Adults (complete medical eye exam by an ophthalmologist)
- Under 40 years old-every 5-10 years
- Eye disease screening at 40 years old. Your ophthalmologist will tell you when to return for eye exams based on your history and what they find in this screening exam.
- 40-54 years old-every 2-4 years
- 55-64 years old-every 1-3 years
- 65 years old and every 1-2 years after, or as recommended by your ophthalmologist.
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