Systemic diseases are diseases that involve many organs or the whole body. Many of these diseases also affect the eyes. In fact, an eye exam sometimes leads to the first diagnosis of a systemic disease.

We’ve compiled a list of common systemic diseases and how they may affect your vision and eye health:


Diabetes can cause severe eye complications, including swelling of the retina (macular oedema), abnormal growth of new retinal blood vessels and bleeding inside the eye. Diabetic Retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide. In addition, people with diabetes develop cataracts earlier than other people.

Visual fluctuations are very common in patients with uncontrolled Diabetes. In most patients, visual fluctuations are the first symptom of uncontrolled blood sugar levels.

Diabetic patients are encouraged to have annual eye examinations with an Ophthalmologist.

Hypertension (High blood pressure)

Hypertension, which occurs in approximately 42% to 54% of South Africans, remains a significant cause of morbidity.

Hypertension cause damage to the retinal blood vessels, this is known as hypertensive retinopathy. Uncontrolled hypertension can lead to embolic events, such as central retinal vein occlusion, which is commonly referred to as a “stroke in the eye”

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that primarily affects the joints. However, rheumatoid arthritis occasionally affects other parts of the body — including the eyes.

The most common eye-related symptom of rheumatoid arthritis is dryness. Dry eyes are prone to infection, and if untreated, severe dry eyes can cause damage to the cornea. Dry eyes can also be a symptom of Sjogren’s syndrome — an autoimmune disorder that’s often associated with rheumatoid arthritis.


Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a life-threatening virus that over time weakens the immune system, which leads to increased risk of infections.

Many people with AIDS develop ocular health problems. HIV can lead to changes in the retinal blood vessels, this is called HIV retinopathy.

Patients with AIDS are also prone to Cytomegalovirus infection. Cytomegalovirus (CMV) can cause retinitis which can lead to retinal detachment. CMV retinitis van cause irreversible blindness.

Kaposi’s sarcoma is a tumour affiliated with AIDS and may appear as a red or purple mass on the white of your eye or on your eyelids.


Eczema can cause a variety of visual and ocular health changes. The eyelids may become red and swollen due to frequent rubbing of the eye and surrounding area. Eyebrows and eyelashes may become patchy due to frequent rubbing.

The eyelid itself may become inflamed, resulting in tearing, burning and a mucous discharge. Inflamed eyelids can also lead to contact lens intolerance due to changes in the inside of the eyelids.

Constant rubbing of the eyes can eventually deform the cornea and cause visual changes and haze. In extreme cases, the rubbing can lead to scarring of the cornea.

Patients with eczema have a greater risk of developing cataracts and for spontaneous retinal detachment.

Grave’s Disease

Grave’s disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid).

Grave’s ophthalmopathy can cause bulging eyes, gritty and irritated eye, red and inflamed eyes, double vision, light sensitivity and visual loss.


Drinking alcohol excessively can have harmful effects on your body, including your eyes.

Heavy drinking of alcohol can lead to blurred vision or double vision due to weakened eye muscle coordination. Alcohol also decrease contrast sensitivity and peripheral vision.

People who drink and smoke excessively can develop Optic Neuropathy. Optic Neuropathy is damage to the nerve cells that makes up the optic nerve and lead to loss of vision and reduced colour vision.