If you develop cataracts that damage your vision extensively, your eye doctor may recommend surgery to remove this problem. (Learn More) This means undergoing a surgery that removes the diseased lens of the eye and replaces it with an artificial lens called an interocular lens (IOL).
Cataract surgery is an outpatient procedure, so you can go home the same day that your eye receives an IOL. Like other outpatient surgeries, the bulk of your recovery will occur at home. (Learn More) Since your eye takes time to adjust to the artificial lens, recovery will likely take from several weeks to two months.
Your ophthalmologist will provide you with clear, detailed instructions for the hours, days, and weeks after your cataract surgery. (Learn More) Learn more about the overall recovery process, what you can and cannot do during your recovery at different stages, and what side effects to expect.
What Are Cataracts?
The lens of the eye is an organ that rests behind the pupil. It is responsible for refracting light onto the retina, so the optic nerve can send images to the brain. When something is wrong with the lens, the image processed by the brain will be fuzzy, doubled, the wrong color, or otherwise incorrect. There are several problems that can develop in the lens. One of the most common, especially after age 40, is cataracts.
A cataract is a disease that creates a cloudy, milky, or yellow-brown area in the lens, leading to vision changes. This is caused by proteins breaking down, often due to age, but sometimes due to another disease, trauma, or congenital defect. Without treatment, cataracts can lead to blindness. Fortunately, cataract surgery is widely successful in restoring vision by removing the diseased lens and replacing it with an artificial lens called an intraocular lens (IOL).
If you have been diagnosed with cataracts, it may take years for the problem to become serious enough for your ophthalmologist to recommend surgery. When you do need the procedure, the surgery itself typically does not take very long. Uncomplicated surgery on one eye takes about 10 minutes to perform, and then, you will rest in the recovery area for between 15 and 30 minutes. Vision improvements can take several weeks after the procedure due to healing time and getting used to the artificial lens.
The Stages of Post-Cataract Surgery Recovery
Cataract surgery is most often an outpatient procedure, so you will be able to go home the same day your cataract is removed. This means that most of the recovery process will be at home, with some follow-up visits to your ophthalmologist to make sure your eye is healing properly. It is important to closely follow your ophthalmologist’s guidelines for recovery, so you are at less risk of developing complications from the procedure, like inflammation, infection, swelling in the retina, detached retina or lens, pain, and vision loss.
Your ophthalmologist will give you a more detailed schedule of recovery time and expectations, but here are some general recommendations to follow after cataract surgery.
- Immediately after surgery: Once cataract surgery has been completed, and your time in the recovery area has allowed any remaining anesthesia to clear, you can return home. Because your vision will be impacted immediately after surgery, it is not safe to drive yourself home. It is important that you have someone you trust take you back home after the procedure. While this is typically an outpatient operation, it is still an operation, and you may experience grogginess, discomfort, or pain for a few hours after the surgery.Normal side effects in the first day after surgery include:
- Watery eyes.
- Feeling like you have grit in your eyes.
- Blurry or double vision.
- A red or bloodshot eye.
You may receive medicated eye drops to treat the pain. You should also receive a pair of prescription sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare of the sun or lights, and it is important to wear these for the length of time recommended by your ophthalmologist. To ensure the safety of your eyes overnight, you may also receive an eye patch or a protective visor to wear to bed so your eye is not hit or poked in your sleep.
- A few days later: You may still experience some physical discomfort in the eye that underwent cataract surgery, but these symptoms should begin to clear up within 24 to 48 hours after the procedure. You may be using medicated eye drops for several days after the procedure, which may require cleaning around the outside of your eye. Follow your eye doctor’s instructions for this very closely to avoid getting anything, including sterile water, in your eye. After you return home, you should be careful not to get soap and water directly into your eye for the period of time recommended by your ophthalmologist. Although you should be able to perform normal activities like showering within a day after this outpatient surgery, you may need to protect your eye while you bathe. You should also avoid many hair products, perfumes, face washes, lotions, and makeup for a few days while your eye heals.You may wear special eyeglasses for a few days after surgery to prevent you from poking, rubbing, or scratching your eye. Itching and discomfort are common for a few days after the procedure, but it is important to avoid touching your eye during this time. After two to three days, this itching and discomfort will clear up. If it does not go away, or it gets worse, speak with your doctor.You may need to wear these glasses to correct your vision. Although your vision should become clearer within a day or so after surgery, you may need help seeing objects up close if you have a monofocal lens implanted because this lens will not correct for different ranges of sight.While you can perform many basic activities the day after surgery, like watching television and moving around your house, more strenuous activities should be avoided. Your ophthalmologist will work with you to determine which aspects of your lifestyle are safe to perform, such as reading, up-close hobbies like sewing, driving, or physically strenuous activities like exercise. It is important to follow your ophthalmologist’s advice closely because you are at risk of dislocating the new lens.Typically, you will see your ophthalmologist a day or two after your surgery. You will likely still need help getting to and from your eye doctor’s office. You will have another follow-up exam a week later. Then, you can spend a few weeks focusing on recovery before your next appointment.
- Weeks later: While you can expect considerable vision improvement in one to three days after surgery, it can take between three and ten weeks for your vision to improve as much as possible.Your final follow-up exam with your ophthalmologist should be about one month after your surgery. This is the full expected recovery time. With the exams before the one-month mark, your eye doctor should be able to catch any problems that come up after cataract surgery and treat these as needed.Total healing time after cataract surgery is up to eight weeks, or two months. During this time, your vision should continue to improve. Colors may seem brighter, and your vision should be clearer overall. While you are not likely to recover perfect vision, or 20/20 vision, you are expected to have 20/30 or 20/40 vision without any corrective wear like glasses. Once your eyes have healed fully after cataract surgery, your doctor will give you your final glasses prescription. This is not likely to change because the artificial lens in your eye will not change shape or clarity over time, like a biological lens would.If you have cataracts in both eyes that require surgery, your ophthalmologist will typically operate on one eye first, wait for the eye to recover, and then schedule the second surgery. While this lengthens your overall vision recovery time, it is important to allow for the adjustment period, so you can see out of one eye and know whether there may be complications during the healing process.
Recommendations for Care After Cataract Surgery
In the days and weeks after your surgery, it is recommended that you:
- Use prescription eye drops as detailed by your ophthalmologist.
- Follow all the recommendations of your ophthalmologist and/or eye surgeon.
- Rest and relax for two to three days.
- Use your eye shield every night for at least one week.
- Wear the eye shield while showering, especially if washing your hair.
- Perform normal, low-impact activities like using a computer, reading, or watching TV as normal.
- Avoid swimming during recovery for four to eight weeks.
It is important to avoid:
- Rubbing your eye.
- Getting foreign objects in your eye, like shampoo.
- Performing strenuous activities like running or yoga.
- Driving before getting the all-clear from your eye doctor.
- Flying without your doctor’s knowledge and approval.
You can return to work a few days or weeks after the procedure, depending on what type of job you have.
Recovered Vision Is Likely After Cataract Surgery
It is important to follow your eye doctor’s instructions for at-home, postoperative care, and attend all follow-up exams so your doctor can ensure your eye is healing properly. If you experience problems with your vision, ongoing or worsening discomfort or pain, swelling or redness, or loss of vision, you should report these to your doctor immediately.
Because cataract surgery has been performed for decades, it has a high success rate and a low rate of complications. If you have any concerns, speaking with your ophthalmologist can help you understand details of your specific cataract condition, risks of surgery, or other eye health issues that may arise. When you do undergo cataract surgery, the bulk of your recovery time will be at home, so it is important to understand exactly how to take care of yourself, which your ophthalmologist will make clear.
Cataract Surgery. (March 22, 2018). Mayo Clinic.
Cataract Surgery Recovery. (October 2016). All About Vision.
Cataract Surgery. (November 9, 2018). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Recovery: Cataract Surgery. (December 14, 2017). National Health Services (NHS).
Cataract Surgery: What to Expect at Home. (December 3, 2017). MyHealth.Alberta.ca.