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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:
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.
Some types of cataracts in children require more urgent treatment than other types:
Call your child's doctor if:
CitationsMadan A, Good WV (2005). Disorders of the eye. In HW Taeusch et al., eds., Avery's Diseases of the Newborn, 8th ed., pp. 1539–1555. Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders.Other Works ConsultedWright KW (2008). Pediatric cataracts section of Leukocoria: Cataracts, retinal tumors, and Coats disease. In Pediatric Ophthalmology for Primary Care, 3rd ed., pp. 286–300. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
Last Revised: August 24, 2011
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Carol L. Karp, MD - Ophthalmology
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