Prescription or over-the-counter, does it really matter with reading glasses? Expert weighs in

What's the difference between prescription and over-the-counter reading glasses?
What's the difference between prescription and over-the-counter reading glasses?
Photo: Kannika Paison/Getty Images
  • Presbyopia is farsightedness caused by ageing.
  • Symptoms include having difficulty reading small print and holding reading material at arm's length to view it.
  • Should you invest in a prescription pair, or is over-the-counter okay?
  • While over-the-counter is fine for use every now and again, an expert says they should not be relied on daily.

Presbyopia is farsightedness caused by ageing. The term comes from a Greek word which means "old eye". While not enjoyable, it is a natural part of the ageing process and the reason you may find yourself holding your phone at arm's length to read this article. It's also a sign that it may be time for you to invest in a pair of reading glasses. 

But the question is, do you get a prescription pair or just run to your nearest pharmacy and pick out a generic pair of over-the-counter spectacles? Is there even a difference?

READ MORE | Kicking off the new year with a detox diet? A dietitian unpacks the science behind these fads

What exactly is presbyopia?

"As we age, the crystalline lens in the eye loses elasticity. When this occurs, it prevents your eyes from focusing as well as they used to," a press statement from Spec-Savers explains. 

"Most people start to notice changes to their close vision from around the age of 40."

Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Having difficulty reading small print
  • Needing to hold reading material at arm's length to focus on it
  • Blurred vision at normal reading distance (about 35cm)
  • Eye fatigue and headaches when doing close work

Reading glasses act as magnifying glasses, making small texts easier to view. So, should you invest in a prescription pair, or is over-the-counter okay? The short answer: it depends. 

The head of optometry at Spec-Savers, Wesley Language, says that while over-the-counter options work fine, they should not be used all the time but rather kept as a backup.  

"I liken it to running shoes: if you're an occasional jogger, basic inexpensive running shoes will work for your needs. But if you're a regular runner, you'll need to invest in specialised running shoes that will provide the support your feet and gait need. 

"Likewise, if your job requires long hours of reading or computer work, readers won't fit the bill. You need spectacles or contact lenses that have been specifically prescribed for your unique eyesight to avoid eye strain and headaches."

Here are some reasons why you should opt for prescription glasses, according to Spec-Savers:

  • In over-the-counter readers, the lens 'power' is the same for each eye, whereas, for the majority of the population, their eyes are not uniformly strong or weak. It can cause eye strain if you read through lenses of the wrong prescription for an extended period. 
  • Over-the-counter readers are 'one size fits all' in that they are made to a standard pupillary distance, which is the distance between the centres of the pupils of the eyes and the lenses. If the lens centre is not in line with your pupil centre, you might not be able to see clearly or may end up with eye strain -- as if you were wearing someone else's glasses.
  • Over-the-counter readers do not correct astigmatism, which affects eight out of nine people to some degree. Astigmatism can cause headaches, tired eyes, and blurry vision and require professional intervention to correct.
  • Over-the-counter readers cannot correct distance vision, so if you also need glasses for distance vision, you should consider bifocals or multifocals/progressive lenses. Bifocals help you see both close-up and far away, while multifocals/progressive lenses adjust for close, intermediate and distance viewing. Progressive lenses are beneficial for people with presbyopia because they provide clear distance and near vision, as well as clear intermediate (computer) vision.

Other things you should know:

Wesley recommends getting an eye test at least every 24 months to check for issues like glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration. The risk of developing these conditions increases as we age. 

READ MORE | Invisible skin mites called Demodex almost certainly live on your face -- but what about your mascara?

There is also a belief that wearing glasses worsens your vision, but this is not true. With presbyopia, your vision will naturally decline with age, whether you wear spectacles or not. 

If your vision seems to be blurrier than what you remember it being before you started wearing glasses, it's possible that you have just become accustomed to clear vision when wearing your glasses and are experiencing the contrast between corrected and uncorrected vision. 

In the end, if you decide that over-the-counter glasses are the way to go, it's still important to speak to your optometrist, who could recommend the right lens power for your eyes. During this discussion, make sure you talk about your occupation, hobbies and other activities you enjoy, as the type of glasses you need may depend on these. 

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.