Which "Eye Doctor" Do I See For What?

You may use one term to refer to three different eye care professionals without ever realizing it. In fact, most people will say "eye doctor" to refer to any healthcare provider who checks their eyes, even though only one is a medical doctor. The term means different things to different people. To some people, the term means the person who checks their vision. To others, it refers to the individual who fits them with glasses or contact lenses. To another group of people, it means the person who did surgery to remove their cataracts. So if you are having difficulty with your eyes, with which "eye doctor" should you make an appointment?

The Optometrist

An optometrist specializes in diagnosing vision problems. This eye care professional performs vision exams for nearsightedness and farsightedness, then writes prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses if needed. An optometrist also diagnoses glaucoma, though does not treat it.

An optometrist has a bachelor's degree (usually in a science field) and has completed a four-year program in optometry. Optometrists have the initials D.O. after their names, which means Doctor of Optometry. State licensing is required in order to practice.

You should make an appointment with an optometrist if you are:

  • having difficulty seeing objects that are either close up or far away
  • troubled by blurred vision
  • experiencing frequent headaches
  • seeing "halos" around lights

The Optician

An optician helps fill optometrists' prescriptions. He/she measures corneal distance and lens thickness, then gives the information to the technicians who make the glasses and contact lenses. Further, an optician helps people select shapes or styles of glasses that are most suitable to their faces.

The educational requirements to become an optician vary from state to state. Some states require associate's or bachelor's degrees, while others require completion of a vocational training program. Twenty-three states mandate a license in order to practice.

You will meet with an optician if your optometrist or ophthalmologist gives you a prescription.

The Ophthalmologist

Only the ophthalmologist is really a medical doctor. Ophthalmologists not only screen for and treat vision problems, but all other eye conditions as well. They remove foreign objects and treat eye infections. They also are the only type of eye care professional who can perform surgery to correct vision and remove cataracts. Besides private practice settings, ophthalmologists work in hospitals and urgent care centers.

Ophthalmologists complete medical school, then earn a Ph.D. in ophthalmology. They are licensed by the American Board of Ophthalmology.

You should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist if you:

  • have any kind of foreign object lodged in your eye
  • are experiencing light sensitivity, especially if it comes on rapidly
  • see crusting, discharge, or redness in/around your eye
  • having trouble seeing signs and judging distances at night
  • suddenly begin seeing flashes of light or experience obstruction in your field of vision
  • are struggling to focus clearly

Either an optometrist or ophthalmologist can perform routine vision exams, and if you haven't had one in the past two years, now is the time. In fact, did you know that a routine eye appointment can detect far more than just vision problems? Red flags for conditions such as diabetes, tumors, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, thyroid disease and even cancer can show up in a simple eye exam.

As you can see, "eye doctor" is not a catch-all term, despite its common usage in our language. It's important to make your appointment with the type of eye care professional who is best suited to help with your particular eye care situation. Click here to continue reading more about the professionals who can help with your specific problem.