How to Read an Eyeglass Prescription

Updated on July 17, 2018
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Alistair has been researching nutrition science for eleven years. Alistair's primary expertise is in vision health.

Learn four easy steps for how to read eyeglass prescriptions!
Learn four easy steps for how to read eyeglass prescriptions! | Source

There are literally an infinite number of iterations and combinations of eyeglass prescriptions prescribed by optometrists, opthamologists, and retina experts. This article will help explain and dissect what exactly each of the numbers on your prescription mean, and why you don't really need a trained professional to interpret it for you.

Steps to Reading an Eyeglass Prescription

  • Step 1: Learn the sphere number
  • Step 2: Learn the cylinder and axis numbers
  • Step 3: Understand how the sphere, cylinder, and axis numbers work together
  • Step 4: Understand how to read bifocal additions

Step 1: Learn the Sphere Number

Firstly, before you see examples of eyeglass prescriptions, you'll need to familiarize yourself with a few terms:

  • OD is an abbreviation for oculus dexter, Latin for right eye (from the patient's point of view).
  • OS is an abbreviation for oculus sinister, Latin for left eye (from the patient's point of view).
  • Nearsightedness, or myopia, is when someone is unable to see things clearly unless they are relatively close to their eyes, owing to the focusing of rays of light by the eye at a point in front of the retina. This is the most common refractive error of the eye, and it has become more prevalent in recent years. In fact, a recent study by the National Eye Institute (NEI) shows the prevalence of myopia is growing rapidly. Though the exact cause for this increase in Americans is unknown, many eye doctors feel it has something to do with eye fatigue from computer use and other extended near vision tasks.
  • Farsightedness, or hyperopia, is when someone is unable to see things that are relatively close to their eyes, owing to the focusing of rays of light by the eye at a point behind the retina. While this is less common than nearsightedness, farsightedness is still a major problem for many people around the world.
  • Plusses and minuses for the sphere (ignoring astigmatism, macular degeneration, or need for a bifocal) represent your ability to see objects far away, and in some cases, up close. Minus prescriptions mean you are nearsighted and are able to see objects close up (and for some of the highest prescriptions, such as -15.00, only what is right in front of their face), and plus prescriptions mean that you have trouble seeing what's in the distance (beyond ten feet), and anything close-up, but middle ground is marginally better.

How light rays focus at a point in front of your retina is the cause for nearsightedness and farsightedness.
How light rays focus at a point in front of your retina is the cause for nearsightedness and farsightedness. | Source

Lens Prescription for Nearsightedness

OD (Right Eye)
OS (Left Eye)

In this case, the sphere is -1.25 for the right eye, and -1.50 for the left eye. There is an important point to be made. Regardless of if there is a + or - before the sphere number, the rule of thumb is, the higher the number, the worse the eyesight. So a -6.50 is always worse than a -2.50, and a +7.50 is always worse than a +2.50. Ignore the plusses and minuses for the moment.

So, in this situation above, the left eye is worse than the right. It's a marginal difference, but if we were to assume -1.25 for each eye, the left eye would be straining slightly to see as clearly as the right, and that could in turn, cause further issues, such as headache, fatigue, and migraines.

More Examples of Plusses and Minuses

Say a person with a minus prescription wanted to read a book, they would tend to have it right in front of their eyes, like the proverbial bookwork. A person with a plus prescription would have the book at arm's length and try to read it like that (not always possible due to other complications).

Now you know what the sphere property of the prescription is. It is the curvature of the lens, and corresponding thickness of the lens to amplify the vision to achieve the desired effect. -10.00 prescriptions tends to be very thick, especially around the edges of the lenses, while a +10.00 prescription will be very thick and bubbled in the middle of the lens. It's all about correcting the issue.

Remember, your eyes are not identical. You may have slightly different problems with each.
Remember, your eyes are not identical. You may have slightly different problems with each. | Source

Step 2: Learn the Cylinder and Axis Numbers

The cylinder is a measure of one's astigmatism. Astigmatism is an abnormality in the shape of the eye that causes light entering the retina to become distorted and sent in the wrong direction. People with heavy astigmatism mimic those with heavy plus sphere prescriptions. They cannot see far away or close up. It's a level of haziness and blurriness that will cause a person to perpetually try to be focusing on something that they will not be able to see clearly. A person with heavy astigmatism will have eyes that look like footballs rather than soccer balls. Luckily, this is something that can be corrected with eyeglasses.

In the previous example, there was no number listed for astigmatism. This means that the patient does not require any correction in that area. But, let's use a new example.

Lens Prescription for Farsightedness

OD (Right Eye)
OS (Left Eye)

In this example, both eyes are farsighted, and have heavy astigmatism. It is extremely rare to find a patient with -4.00 astigmatism, and this patient in particular would be essentially blind as a bat without glasses. The cylinder twists the sphere about an axis, causing the lens shape to change in nature, and curvature. What that cylinder and axis are, are determined during your optical exam.

Step 3: Understand How the Sphere, Cylinder, and Axis Numbers Work Together

The lenses in your glasses compensate for your eyes' natural defect by changing the direction in which the light comes through the lens, and at what angle and magnitude. So, people with high spheres, cylinders and axis rely on glasses and contacts way more than say, someone with just a basic -1.25 prescription. They are, at that point, essential to functioning in everyday life.

Cylinder always is displayed in a negative number (the higher the negative number, the worse the astigmatism), unless you are seen by an opthamologist. They have the option of writing it as a positive number, but there's a mathematical formula we Opticians follow to convert their positive annotations to the correct negative ones.

The axis is always on the range from 0 to 180, where 0 and 180 are basically equivalent. It indicates how much the lens much be adjusted about the axis to correct which way the light enters the eye. Low numbers and high numbers are essentially equivalent. There is no "bad" axis number, only different ones.

Step 4: Understanding Bifocal Additions

In the following prescription, the bifocal prescription is written as a +x.xx after each of the other numbers, and most doctors either specify either PAL or FT for their prescriptions, which mean no-line or line bifocals, respectively.

In the scenario below, the patient has bad eyesight distance-wise, with their -3.00 and -3.75 sphere, and some hindrance from their +1.25 and +1.75 cylindrical.

In this case, the bifocal wearer needs a strong bifocal of +2.50 which is essentially just like a magnifying glass in the way that it amplifies things up-close, but is useless at a distance. The doctor specified PAL which means they need a progressive bifocal, or that's their preference, or both.

A bifocal prescription example.
A bifocal prescription example.

When it comes to progressive bifocals, there is a small area at the very bottom of your lens where you can utilize that +2.50 magnification. Don't confuse +2.50 and +2.50 of a sphere. They're completely unrelated. A +2.50 sphere with a +2.50 reading addition, does not equal +5.00 magnification.

The bifocals are meant for objects within 5 feet, but usually more around the 3-feet and closer range. It magnifies whatever you're looking at, and makes up for your eye's natural tendency to become unable to focus on objects up-close.

Be thankful if you only have a +1.50 or +1.75 reading addition, as that means you could technically get by without glasses for reading, but it would be difficult. You'd end up having to put the book at arm's length and squinting.

Many people who do not have high spheres and no astigmatism but have problems with reading up-close, go for reading glasses, which serve the same exact purpose, minus the correction of the other eye problems.

Other Miscellaneous Facts


Prisms are a rare occurrence in the optical world because, simply put, not many people need this specific correction. What prisms are, are specially built in lens adjustments that compensate for a specific eye issue. This eye issue is if one of your eyes, or both, are not in-line with each other, as in they cannot focus on the same object. For lazy-eye folks, prisms are useless, but for those people who by birth defect have an eye looking slightly off in a different direction, prisms correct the double vision that naturally occurs.

Eyeglass Prescriptions are Universal

Sometimes they will omit this fact at doctors offices so that you stay there and buy what they have to offer, but in reality, you can take your prescriptions (and you are entitled to your prescription) anywhere and everywhere, so don't forget that.

Closing Thoughts on Reading an Eyeglass Prescription

Hopefully this article has helped explain a bit about what an eyeglass prescription is, and how to read/decipher it. I'm sure, by now, you're calculating just how bad your eyes really are. I'm just happy and glad that modern science has gotten optometry and eyecare down to such a solid routine. Sure, yearly exams are usually required, and sure, eyeglasses fall apart pretty easily, but there are very few secrets in the field of optometry, and as a consumer, and patient, you have a right to know what they are, and make informed decisions based upon that data. I hope this article has been helpful and wish you all the best of luck in your eyecare endeavors!


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    • profile image


      8 months ago

      I really liked this article, very easy to follow and it answered everything I was looking for. Thank you :)

    • profile image

      Dr M Ashraful Kabir 

      10 months ago

      here not clear D.V., N.V., PAL/FT

    • profile image


      16 months ago

      Great article - best at explaining in easy and understandable terminology.

      Thank you!

    • profile image

      B. Hyman 

      17 months ago

      Author... what are your qualifications for writing such a horrendous, difficult-to-follow, and inaccurate article?

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      its from their genetics. most of the time you have one of your two paenrts color eyes but sometimes you have both. it is kind of weird. also sometimes crack babies have different colored eyes but still they can't help it


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