Depending on your needs, over-the-counter reading glasses might actually be better than prescription lens.

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Woman Wearing Reading Glasses in Front of a Computer
Credit: Hoxton/Sam Edwards/Getty

Even if you've had perfect vision for most of your life, you should be aware of a condition called presbyopia, which affects your ability to focus on intricate details as you age. Most people first encounter the effects of presbyopia after the age of 40, when it becomes harder to read the fine print of books or magazines or the fine print of a menu at a restaurant. Even reading text characters on phones and computers can get more difficult over time. Nearly 123 million Americans will develop presbyopia and, at some point, many will seek the aid of corrective lenses to fix the issue.

Laura Cook, MD, an associate professor of ophthalmology within the University of Virginia's Health System, says this condition shouldn't be confused with farsightedness, also known as hyperopia. Farsightedness, which causes people to have trouble seeing objects clearly at a close distance, can occur at any age. Both conditions, however, can lead to crippling headaches, eye strain, chronic fatigue, and the inability to see details around you.

Most people are diagnosed with farsightedness between the ages of 10 and 30 years old, and, in most cases, will require prescription glasses. While wearing reading glasses won't cause further harm to your vision if you have farsightedness (even those who have no vision issues at all wouldn't damage their sight by wearing a pair), over-the-counter reading glasses can serve as a temporary fix, so they shouldn't take the place of a proper eye exam. If you've ruled out farsightedness and are experiencing difficulty reading or fuzziness when trying to make out the details of objects in close range, reading glasses could be a good option and shouldn't require a formal visit to an eye care professional.

Here, experts share their tips for buying over-the-counter reading glasses, which some say may be better than prescription lenses altogether.

When Should You Get Reading Glasses?

It can be scary when reading small print or making out the details of an object becomes more difficult, but experts say there's little reason to panic. "[Patients] come in and they're freaking out, but in reality, their distance vision is fine," Cook says. "They panic because they've never experienced something like this before." Experts suggest trying a pair of reading glasses, particularly if you start to experience headaches or feel fatigued while doing work that involves small, intricate details, like sewing. If you have to hold papers-or your phone or computer monitor-at arm's length to read them, that's a good indication that reading glasses might be for you.

Are Non-Prescription Reading Glasses Safe for My Eyes?

To purchase the best pair for your needs, you may want to have a quick eye exam, says Stephanie Erwin, an optometrist at the Cleveland Clinic. "If you choose a pair that's too weak, you'll need to hold reading material farther away than is comfortable, and vice versa for too long. Long-term, that can cause eye strain or headaches," she adds. A professional consultation can also help identify when different corrections are needed for each eye, or when astigmatism (blurred vision) is present, both of which will require prescription lenses. Indiana-based optometrist Christopher Pataluch says that the options typically available at your local pharmacy-even progressive lenses, which are designed to address needs at varying distances-aren't designed for special cases like these.

Prescription glasses also have the added benefit of being customized with protective coatings that block glare while driving, as well as UV rays and blue light, which can be crucial for those working in an office setting all day long.

What Kind of Reading Glasses Should You Buy?

"If you're just starting out with reading glasses, head to the drug store and be sure to bring something with you that you want to be able to read with no issues," Cook says. "Try on each pair they have in store-start with the weakest strength, which is +1. From there, glasses tend to range up into the +3 range, which is considered the strongest you can get before being prescribed other lenses." While most pharmacies don't offer glasses stronger than +3, online retailers sell special high-powered reading glasses that can range up to +7 without needing a prescription.

Cook says that if you choose to take an eye exam with an eye specialist, you don't have to buy lenses from them directly-and that getting a prescription for reading glasses could be a waste of your time and money. "If your distance vision isn't good, you'll need to see a professional and get a prescription. But if you're just dealing with trouble reading, over-the-counter reading glasses tend to stand up to those that are prescribed by professionals. Cost isn't a factor in quality here," Cook says. "A lot of people come in saying they swear that prescription lenses are better for them, and I'm happy to give them a prescription, but most of the time they're paying more for something that's extremely similar to what's available in the pharmacy."

Lastly, Cook says you may need to buy two pairs for different uses throughout your day. One pair might require a higher strength for reading-best for those ordering dinner at restaurants or reading programs in a dimly lit theater, for example-another might require a full point less on the magnification scale for reading text at a bit of a distance, like on a computer screen or at a presentation. Start with a pair with the lowest strength that will work for you, Cook suggests. As you age, your eyes will as well, and eventually, you'll need to upgrade your glasses to a higher strength.

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