BACKGROUND: Since studies of the relationship between carotid disease and diabetic retinopathy (DR) have shown apparent inconsistencies, the aim of this study was to conduct a systematic review of available published data. METHODS: Electronic databases were searched independently by two reviewers, according to an iterative protocol, for relevant articles. The search term used was "diabetes AND (carotid disease OR intima-media OR carotid plaque OR carotid stenosis OR carotid arterial disease OR carotid artery disease OR carotid atherosclerosis) AND (retinopathy OR diabetic retinopathy)". RESULTS: From 477 publications, 14 studies were included. There were differences in the variables used as markers of carotid disease and DR across the included studies. Ten studies used carotid disease as the dependent variable, and the remainder used DR. All but one study involved cross-sectional data. Most studies reported a statistically significant association between at least one parameter of carotid disease as assessed by ultrasound and DR presence or severity. Only four studies reported no significant association. A common limitation was the use of convenience participant sampling. CONCLUSIONS: There appears to be an increased likelihood of DR when there is ultrasonographic evidence of carotid disease, and vice versa. The available studies suggest that there may be a direct relationship between DR and carotid macrovascular disease and/or that these complications co-exist due to shared risk factors. If carotid disease is detected, retinal assessment should be performed. If DR is identified, intensive cardiovascular disease risk management should be considered. Additional longitudinal studies are needed to assess the directionality of the association.