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Cataracts in Children - Topic Overview

A cataract is a painless, cloudy area in the lens of the eye that blocks the passage of light to the retina, the nerve layer at the back of the eye, usually causing vision problems. Although cataracts are rare in children, they do occur in about 1 out of 5,000 births.1 The condition is usually present at birth and is more common in premature infants. It is often a result of genetics, infection during pregnancy, or low birth weight.

The earlier cataracts are diagnosed and treated, the more likely it is that sight will be preserved or develop normally. A baby's vision develops rapidly in the first few months of life. If a cataract blocks light from entering the eye and stimulating the retina, the area of the brain used for sight does not develop properly. And lazy eye (amblyopia) occurs. Without surgery in the first few months of life, the child won't ever see well with that eye, even if he or she has surgery later in life.

The signs of cataracts in children include the following:

  • The child may not look directly at or respond to faces or large, colorful objects. An infant who cannot find small objects when he or she is crawling on the floor may have cataracts.
  • The child may scowl, squint, or shield his or her eyes more than expected when in bright sunlight. This happens because of the glare caused by a cataract.
  • The child's eyes may be misaligned and not focus on the same point at the same time (strabismus).
  • The affected eyes may have repetitive wandering movements (nystagmus). This is usually a later sign of cataracts. This sign may not develop until the infant is several months old. Removing the cataract will probably not correct all of the vision loss at this point.

If a child has a cataract in only one eye, you may not be able to tell. All children should have regular exams by a family doctor to screen for these types of cataracts.

Cataracts in infants are commonly detected at birth or during routine well-child checks. More frequent exams are needed if the child has a medical condition that increases the risk for cataracts, if he or she seems to have trouble seeing, or if you notice your child has clouding of the lens. For example, in a photograph of the child, one eye may appear white whereas the other has the normal "red eye" look.

Children who have vision problems from cataracts usually need surgery to prevent lasting vision loss and to ensure normal vision will develop. A small number of adults and children with cataracts may benefit for a short time from eyedrops that widen (dilate) the pupil. These eyedrops increase the amount of light getting into the eye. The drops may also help prevent vision loss in very young children who need to wait for surgery to be done.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 24, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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