Patients with diabetes are more likely to develop eye problems such as cataracts and glaucoma, but the disease's affect on the retina is the main threat to vision. Most patients develop diabetic changes in the retina after approximately 20 years. The effect of diabetes on the eye is called diabetic retinopathy.

Over time, diabetes affects the circulatory system of the retina. The earliest phase of the disease is known as background diabetic retinopathy. In this phase, the arteries in the retina become weakened and leak, forming small, dot-like hemorrhages. These leaking vessels often lead to swelling or edema in the retina and decreased vision.