You cannot diagnose a pregnancy by merely looking at a woman’s eyes. This is a historical and outdated method of detecting pregnancy. A 16th century physician named Jacques Guillemeau claimed that women who were pregnant developed deep-set eyes, smaller pupils, drooping eyelids, and bulging veins in the corners of the eyes.
While this theory has long been proven untrue, pregnancy does cause major changes in a woman’s body—weight gain, hormonal changes, fluid retention—which can have an effect on the eyes. However, changes to the eyes are typically not outwardly visible.
7 changes to a woman’s eyes during pregnancy
- Curvature of the cornea: According to several studies, the curvature of the cornea thickens and curves during pregnancy. This can affect the eye’s ability to focus on objects by changing the angle at which light refracts. However, this change is reversed after labor and delivery.
- Contact lens discomfort: Some pregnant women who wear contact lenses report discomfort, most likely due to changes in the shape of the cornea, which make contact lenses difficult to fit on the eye. During pregnancy, fluid retention can make the cornea less sensitive, especially during the third trimester. This increases the risk of irritating the eyes when putting in contact lenses. Discomfort may also be exacerbated by dry eyes caused by pregnancy. The majority of these changes go away after childbirth.
- Hyperpigmented eyelids: Due to hormonal changes, hypermelanosis may occur, which is blotchy pigmentation on the eyelids. Hypermelanosis can affect up to 70% of pregnant women and may be accompanied by pigmentation on the cheeks and nose. After childbirth, pigmentation issues gradually diminish over time.
- Spider veins: Elevated estrogen levels can cause spider veins (thread-like, purple to blue veins under the skin) to form under the eyes and other parts of the face and upper body.
- Ptosis: Ptosis (drooping eyelids) is another uncommon pregnancy side effect and believed to be caused by fluid retention and hormonal changes. These changes usually go away after the baby is born.
- Dry eyes: About 60%-70% of women report dry eyes as a symptom of pregnancy. Excessive tearing, blurry vision, and a scratchy, often burning sensation are signs of dry eye syndrome, which occurs when the meibomian glands (lubricating glands that line the upper and lower eyelids) produce less oil. Hormonal changes in pregnancy can have a temporary effect on these glands and lead to dry eye symptoms. Although most lubricating eye drops are safe to use during pregnancy, you should always consult your doctor before use.
- Increased light sensitivity: Photophobia (sensitivity to light) is a typical symptom of migraine that can worsen during pregnancy. Migraines affect about 40% of women of reproductive age at some point in their lives. Women with migraines during pregnancy often find some relief in their second and third trimesters, although headaches can flare again postpartum due to rapid drops in estrogen levels.
Are eye changes during pregnancy serious?
During pregnancy, about 15% of women experience vision changes. Although most of these changes resolve after giving birth, some can be serious and require medical attention.
Preeclampsia (extremely high blood pressure) is a potentially life-threatening condition that can be detected through the eyes during pregnancy. A small percentage of pregnant women experience this complication, which usually occurs around week 20 of pregnancy or later.
Preeclampsia is characterized by new-onset hypertension (high blood pressure) and proteinuria (excess protein in the urine). Because blood pressure can increase rapidly and risk the health of both mother and baby, immediate medical treatment is required. Other symptoms of preeclampsia include blurred vision, auras of flashing lights, floaters or black patches in the field of vision, sudden inability to focus the eyes, and even temporary blindness.
Other serious eye problems that require immediate medical attention include:
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