An ophthalmologist is an eye care specialist. Unlike optometrists and opticians, ophthalmologists are doctors of medicine (MD) or doctors of osteopathy (DO) who have specific training and experience diagnosing and treating eye and vision conditions. Ophthalmologists are qualified to provide comprehensive eye care including medical and surgical eye care.


What is an ophthalmologist vs an optometrist?

An ophthalmologist is an eye care specialist. Unlike optometrists and opticians, ophthalmologists are doctors of medicine (MD) or doctors of osteopathy (DO) with specific training and experience in diagnosing and treating eye and vision conditions.

An ophthalmologist is qualified to deliver total eye care, meaning vision services, eye examinations, medical and surgical eye care, and diagnosis and treatment of disease and visual complications that are caused by other conditions, like diabetes.


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What education is required to become an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist has completed four years of pre-medical undergraduate education, four years of medical school, one year of internship, and three or more years of specialized medical and surgical training in eye care. As a qualified specialist, an ophthalmologist is licensed by a state regulatory board to diagnose, treat, and manage conditions affecting the eye and visual system.

When would I need an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist can take care of all your eye care needs, but you should consider working with an ophthalmologist any time you have a serious eye problem that will require surgery or specialized treatment.


What eye problems require surgery?

Ophthalmologists perform surgery for the following eye problems:

  • Cataracts. Normally your eyes are clear. Cataracts happen when your eyes cloud, causing symptoms such as blurred vision.
  • Glaucoma. This condition is the second leading cause of blindness in the world. People with glaucoma have optic nerve damage from fluid buildup in the eye.
  • Retinal detachment. This is a serious eye condition that happens when your retina, the layer of tissue in the back of your eye, pulls away from supporting tissues.

What eye problems require specialized treatment?

Here are some examples of conditions when you might seek treatment from an ophthalmologist:


When should I have my eyes examined?

Regular eye screening is another thing you can do to protect your and your family’s good health. Your eye health can change over time, so it’s a good idea to plan for regular eye examinations.

  • All children should have vision screening in a pediatrician's or family practitioner's office around the time when they learn the alphabet, and then every one to two years afterward. Screening should begin sooner if any eye problems are suspected.
  • Adults ages 20 to 39 should have complete eye exams every five to 10 years.
  • Adults between the ages 40 to 54 should have their eyes checked every two to four years
  • Adults between the ages 55 to 64 should have their eyes checked every one to three years.

What should I expect from my appointment with my ophthalmologist?

Most routine eye examinations start with questions about your eyes:

  • Are you having any eye or vision problems?
  • If so, what are they?
  • How long have you had these problems?
  • Are there factors that make your eye or vision problems better or worse?

Next, your ophthalmologist will ask about your history of wearing eyeglasses or using contacts. They might also ask about your overall health and your family medical history, including any specific eye problems.

What tests are done to check my eyes?

Your ophthalmologist will perform several tests to learn more about your eye health:

  • Visual acuity test. You’ll be asked to read from a chart, called a Snellen chart that contains lines of random letters that become smaller as you move down the chart.
  • Color blindness test. You’ll be asked to look at several charts filled with colored dots that form numbers.
  • Stereopsis test. This test determines if you have adequate 3-D vision.
  • Peripheral vision tests. You might be asked to look into a machine and indicate when you see points of light.
  • Eye muscle test. You might be asked to look at a penlight or pencil and move your eyes in different directions.
  • Pupil constriction test. Your ophthalmologist might look at your pupils with a penlight to confirm your pupils respond to light by constricting or closing.
  • Fundus check. You might be given eye drops to dilate your pupils so your ophthalmologist can check the structures at the back of your eye. This area is called your fundus and includes your retina, nearby blood vessels and your optic nerve.
  • Front of eye check. You might be asked to look into a slit lamp, which is a magnifying device so your ophthalmologist can check your eyelids, cornea, conjunctiva, sclera and iris.
  • Glaucoma test. This test involves placing your eye up to a lens that emits a puff of air so your ophthalmologist can check for glaucoma.

Additional Common Questions

What questions should I ask my ophthalmologist?

You might see your ophthalmologist as part of a regular checkup or for a specific eye problem. Either way, you’ll want to know what’s happening with your eye health. Here are a few questions for you to consider:

  • What condition do I have?
  • What causes this condition?
  • Will it affect my vision, now or in the future?
  • Do I need to make any changes to my everyday life?
  • Are there any symptoms I need to watch for?
  • What do I need to do if I notice those symptoms?
  • Do I need any tests?
  • What do you want to find out from the test?
  • When will I get my test results?
  • Does the test have any risks or side effects?
  • Will I need more tests later?
  • What treatment do you recommend for me and why?
  • When will I start treatment and how long will it last?
  • What do I need to know about the medicine you’re prescribing?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • What are the risks and benefits of this treatment?
  • Are there other treatment options?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Protecting your eye health should be one of your personal health priorities. Few things in life are as precious as the ability to see clearly. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat common eye problems. Make your eye health a priority by having eye examinations as recommended by your ophthalmologist and seeking help anytime you notice changes in your vision.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 11/30/2021.

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