After Surgery to Treat Cataracts

Most people experience minimal discomfort after cataract surgery. A mild painkiller, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), can be taken if necessary. Some redness, scratchiness, or discharge from the eye may occur during the first days after surgery. In addition, you may notice a few black spots or shapes (called floaters) drifting through your field of vision.

In some cases, you will need to wear a protective patch over your eye for 24 hours after surgery. For several days to a few weeks, you'll need to wear glasses during the day and an eye shield at night to prevent trauma such as rubbing or poking the eye.

Vision varies widely when the patch is first removed. After phacoemulsification, many people notice improvement in vision the next day. Even so, it generally takes two to four weeks for the eye to "settle down" and for vision to stabilize. In most people, vision remains blurred for several days or weeks and then gradually improves as the eye heals.

In some cases of extracapsular surgery, the sutures in the eye alter the shape of the cornea and result in temporary blurring or defective vision. This problem generally goes away on its own, although it may require suture removal—a simple and painless procedure.

In general, vision improves faster in people who receive IOLs than in those with cataract glasses or contact lenses. However, surgery usually changes the corrective prescription for the eye (even in those with lens implants), and you will need new eyeglasses to correct any remaining nearsightedness or farsightedness. You are fully recovered when your eye is completely healed and your vision has stabilized. At that time, you will receive a final corrective prescription.

Possible Complications of Cataract Surgery

Although cataract surgery is associated with a low rate of complications, problems may arise, especially in older adults or in those with general health problems, such as diabetes. You should contact your doctor if any of the following symptoms develop during recovery from surgery: unusual eye pain or aching; persistent redness; bleeding; excessive tearing or discharge; sudden vision changes; or many bright flashes of light.

About 1 percent of people, particularly those who are very nearsighted, may develop retinal detachment within a year or so after cataract surgery. A retinal detachment is a vision-threatening condition, in which the retina becomes separated from the underlying layers of the eye. Disruption of the back of the lens capsule during or after surgery (for instance, during follow-up laser treatment for postsurgical clouding of the capsule) can increase the risk.

Cystoid macular edema (a specific pattern of swelling of the central retina) is another common eye-related complication. The swelling can result in visual impairment that is usually temporary. If the swelling does not go down on its own, the doctor may prescribe eyedrops or other treatments.

After cataract surgery, an infection of the vitreous humor called endophthalmitis is a rare development. If you experience an increasingly red eye, blurred vision, and pain, visit your ophthalmologist immediately.

Typically, however, this condition can be treated with antibiotics and, sometimes, additional surgery. Other complications of cataract surgery, such as significant bleeding inside the eye or large pieces of the cataract falling into the back of the eye, can happen but are rare.

In up to 20 percent of people who undergo extracapsular surgery, the back of the lens capsule subsequently becomes cloudy and causes vision difficulties similar to those of the original cataract. Fortunately, recent advances in lens material and design have substantially reduced the risk of this complication. When cloudiness occurs, laser treatment is an effective remedy.

Publication Review By: Susan B. Bressler, M.D., Harry A. Quigley, M.D., Oliver D. Schein, M.D., M.P.H.

Published: 01 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 13 Jan 2014