Wet macular degeneration is an eye disorder that commonly affects people over the age of 60. People with the condition typically have blurry, distorted central vision that tends to worsen rapidly over time. In previous decades, wet macular degeneration was very difficult to treat and a majority of patients experienced partial blindness. Recent innovations in medicine and clinical techniques, however, have proven effective at slowing or stopping the progression of vision loss in most people.
Most cases of wet macular degeneration develop as a consequence of a more common, less serious problem called dry macular degeneration. In dry macular degeneration, light-sensitive cells in the central part of the retina called the macula gradually deteriorate. The process creates a waste product called drusen that produces spots over parts of the macula. In wet macular degeneration, collections of new blood vessels emerge above and around the macula. If vessels rupture, fluid and blood leak into the macula and distort the perception of shapes and colors.
The causes of dry and wet macular degeneration are not entirely clear, but researchers have identified both genetic and environmental risk factors. Smoking cigarettes, having a familial history of macular degeneration, and being overweight all increase the likelihood of developing eye problems late in life. In addition, long-term sunlight exposure, light colored eyes, nutrient deficient diets, and heart disease are correlated strongly with the condition. Women are at a greater risk than men, and people of Caucasian descent have much higher rates of age-related vision troubles compared with other races.
In the early stages of wet macular degeneration, a person is likely to experience a blurry or blind spot in the central vision of one or both eyes. Shapes and lines may become distorted, and colors tend to lose their intensity. The condition can worsen rapidly, leading to serious impairment of central vision only a few years or even months after the onset of symptoms.
An eye doctor can check for signs of wet macular degeneration through a careful physical examination. A specialized type of microscope called a slit lamp is used to inspect suspicious blood vessels and the macula itself. An imaging procedure called fluorescein angiography involves injecting a fluorescent dye into the bloodstream that shows up on x-rays. The doctor can track the movement of the dye through blood vessels in the eyes to see if they are leaking.
The most common clinical treatment for wet macular degeneration is thermal laser photocoagulation (TLP). During TLP, the eye doctor dissolves abnormal blood vessels with a high-intensity laser beam. Medicated eye drops and oral drugs are usually given to relieve irritation and slow leaking from new or redeveloping blood vessels. With early treatment, future vision loss is usually minimal.