Before you assume you need a visit to an eye doctor to renew your prescription for contacts or glasses, learn what an eye exam will tell you, how often you really need an eye exam, and whether an in-person visit with an eye doctor is required. You may discover that renewing your prescription for eyeglasses or contacts via an online eye exam will help you get your prescription faster and easier than you had imagined.
By Joelle Klein
Reviewed by Quinn Wang, MD
Have you ever found yourself fresh out of contact lenses, searching your travel kit for that last pair you’re sure you have stashed somewhere, only to discover that you can’t find them and you can’t order new contacts without an eye exam? Patients are often surprised that an annual eye exam is required to renew contact lenses and every two years to renew an eyeglass prescription. Here’s what you need to know about how often you need an eye exam and whether an in-person visit is the only way to go.
First, let’s get clear about what an eye exam will tell you: 1) how well you can see (i.e. what is your vision) and 2) how healthy your eyes are (i.e. do your eyes show any signs of disease.) If you have vision problems, the most common cause is refractive error. This means that your vision can be improved via corrective eyewear such as eyeglasses or contact lenses. In this case, your eye doctor will give you a prescription for glasses or contacts. If your eyes show signs of eye disease such as diabetic eye disease or glaucoma, you may be placed on a strict observation and/or treatment regimen.
Vision and eye health are a vital part of overall health. Surprisingly, while nearly two-thirds of American adults report having eye problems, only a small percentage of those people see an eye doctor regularly. The reason for this may be because, according to an American Optometric Association (AOA) survey, about one-third of adults admit that they don’t know how to take care of their eyes. Hint: it starts with regular eye exams.
The first thing to get straight is that for most people, “regular” does not necessarily mean yearly. “There is a perception that annual routine eye exams are a healthcare must,” says cataract surgeon and CEO and co-founder of Quadrant Eye Dr. Quinn Wang. “It’s true that people who wear glasses and contact lenses need eye exams every 1 to 2 years to get their corrective eyewear prescriptions renewed. However, for eye health purposes, healthy adults with no risk factors for eye disease—including, but are not limited to existing eye disease/trauma, family history of eye disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, and metastatic cancer—need only a handful of dilated eye exams before age 40.
Guidelines published by the American Association of Ophthalmology (AAO) state that “routine comprehensive annual adult eye examination in individuals under 40 unnecessarily escalates the cost of eye care…” and is not needed unless the individual is at high risk of developing certain eye diseases. Importantly, all adults should have a baseline eye exam at age 40, if they haven’t had one previously.
How often you need an eye exam will depend on your vision, age, race, family history, and medical history.
Your baseline eye exam will help your eye doctor determine the frequency with which you should schedule a regular, comprehensive eye exam. Here are the guidelines per the AAO:
With about 75 percent of the adult population sporting glasses or contacts, most people are currently required to make a visit to their eye doctor every 1 to 2 years in order to get their prescriptions renewed. It is important to note, however, that these in-person exams are not always medically necessary.
For example, if a young and healthy eye patient has had the same prescription for years, there often is no medical need for this person to be fully re-examined for a simple prescription renewal. However, in-person eye exams are always necessary for all patients with acute or longstanding eye problems; this is because such patients need regular management and/or treatment.
For low-risk patients, a quick vision check and eye health screen is a more practical and efficient solution than a complete in-person visit, which requires significant planning and time off work. And fortunately, these types of vision checks and eye health screens can be conducted online. To be clear, a low-risk patient is someone with a stable and relatively minor refractive error who is having no changes in vision and who has been dilated within the last 5 years.
“QE allows patients to skip unnecessary visits, therefore saving time, money, and stress. We can check patients’ vision and also screen them for serious eye issues,” says Dr. Wang. “Patient safety is at the core of everything we do, so we always alert patients if and when an in-person exam might be necessary.”
The jury is still out on how effective blue light glasses are for eyestrain. One recent study found they made no difference in eyestrain symptoms during a two-hour-long computer task. But some experts feel they may help alleviate eyestrain and fatigue during prolonged, cumulative screen time. Either way, blue glasses alone won’t solve the problem of too much screen time. The best way to reduce eyestrain is to limit screen time and take frequent breaks when you do need to spend several hours at your computer.