What is short-sightedness?

Professor Simon Taylor's profile picture
Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon
20 April 2023
Next review due April 2026

Short-sightedness (also called near-sightedness) is a common problem where you can’t focus on distant objects, but can see close objects clearly. The medical name for this is myopia. Here, I talk about short-sightedness causes and treatments available to improve your vision.

Man wearing glasses standing outdoors

What does short-sightedness mean?

If you’re short-sighted, you see close objects clearly but distant objects will appear fuzzy or blurred. You might have to narrow your eyes to make far away objects seem clearer. This is opposite to long-sightedness, where it’s difficult to focus on objects close to you. Short-sightedness is very common. In the UK, around one in four adults are short-sighted.

Young children may not realise they have blurred vision. Signs of children being short-sighted include:

  • narrowing their eyes
  • rubbing their eyes or turning their head
  • sitting close to the TV
  • having trouble seeing the blackboard or whiteboard at school – this might start to affect learning or behaviour too

Other symptoms may include sore, tired, red and watery eyes and sometimes headaches.

What causes short-sightedness?

Short-sightedness is often discovered in childhood, between the ages of eight and 12. As your eyes continue to grow during childhood, short-sightedness tends to get worse until your eye stops growing. It usually settles down by the time you’re 20, although it is possible to develop short-sightedness as an adult.

Most people who are short-sighted have eyeballs that are longer than normal. It’s not always clear why short-sightedness develops, but there are some things that seem to increase your risk, including:

  • if one or both of your parents are short-sighted
  • being of east-Asian ethnic origin
  • doing a lot of close-up work at a young age, such as using a computer, tablet or phone
  • not spending much time outdoors as a child

How do you know if you’re short-sighted?

You should have an eye examination every two years, even if you have no problems with your vision. Always go for a test sooner if you notice changes or problems in your vision. Some people are entitled to free eye tests, including children and people over 60.

At your eye test, your optician will:

  • ask about your general health and any problems you’re having with your eyes or vision.
  • examine your eyes to check how healthy they look, and may take photographs or scans too.
  • assess both your distance and near vision.

Distance vision (how well you can see things far away) is usually assessed by reading letters from a chart called a Snellen chart. This chart has large letters at the top and small letters at the bottom. For young children, letters can be replaced by pictures or shapes.

Opticians measure the focusing power of your eye in dioptres (D). If you’re short-sighted, this will be a minus number. Your optician will give you a prescription with this measurement at the end of your test. A score between 0 and –3D is classified as mild, –3D to –6D is moderate and over –6D -is severe/high myopia.

If you’re short-sighted, your optician will tell you how often you should have your eyes checked. This may continue to be every two years for adults. For children, testing could be recommended every six months because children’s vision can change very quickly.

Do you need glasses for short-sightedness?

Short-sightedness can usually be corrected by wearing glasses or contact lenses. The lenses in your glasses or contact lenses focus light in the right place on your retina. If you're mildly short-sighted, you may only need to wear glasses or contact lenses at certain times, such as when driving or watching TV.

You may prefer to wear contact lenses instead of glasses for cosmetic or practical reasons. Some people also find that their vision is clearer with contact lenses.

The different types of contact lens fall into two main groups.

  • Soft lenses. These are flexible and mould to the shape of your eye. Depending on the type, they can be used for a day, a fortnight or a month, then you throw them away.
  • Rigid gas permeable (RGP) lenses. These aren’t so flexible and don’t mould to your eye. You keep and reuse them for longer periods of time. They can take a bit of getting used to, but they’re useful for people with certain specific eye problems.

You need to be comfortable touching your eyes to use contact lenses.

Contact lenses are generally very safe. The main risk is getting an eye infection. But you can prevent this if you look after your lenses and eyes properly.

Your optician may recommend a treatment called orthokeratology or corneal reshaping lenses. These are a special type of rigid contact lens that you wear overnight and take out during the day. They are designed to reshape your cornea temporarily to reduce or correct your short-sightedness. This means you can see without glasses or contact lenses the following day.

These lenses carry a higher risk of infection than regular lenses. So you have to be very careful about cleaning them properly. Your optician will tell you if these lenses are an option for you.

How do you fix short-sightedness?

Surgery can be an option to correct short-sightedness instead of relying on glasses or contact lenses. Surgery for short-sightedness isn’t available on the NHS or covered by private health insurance schemes.

You’ll need to pay for the procedure. You also have to be over 18 and must have had little to no change in your prescription over the last two years.

One type of surgery for short-sightedness is Laser eye surgery (also called laser refractive surgery). This surgery aims to reshape your cornea using a laser so that light rays focus correctly on your retina. For short-sightedness the surgery involves flattening the curve of your cornea (the clear outer layer at the front of your eye). All laser eye surgery is done using local anaesthetic eye drops, so you’ll be awake during the procedure. It generally takes about half an hour to treat both eyes.

Another type of surgery is Lens implants. This involves implanting an artificial lens into your eye to correct your sight. You can have your own lens taken out and a replacement put in. Or you can have a lens put in front of your own lens (known as a ‘Phakic’ lens). If you’re severely short-sighted, a lens implant may be a better option for you than laser eye surgery.

While many people find their vision improves with surgery, it’s not always possible to get perfect eyesight. There’s also a risk of problems such as glare, poor night vision or dry eyes. You’ll need to see an ophthalmic surgeon to discover if surgery is right for you, and to discuss all the risks and benefits involved.

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Professor Simon Taylor's profile picture
Professor Simon Taylor
Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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