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Cataracts in Children

Condition Basics

What are cataracts?

Cataracts are a painless, cloudy area in the lens of the eye. They block the passage of light to the retina. Nerve cells in the retina detect light entering the eye and send nerve signals to the brain about what the eye sees. Because cataracts block this light, they can cause vision problems.

What causes them in a child?

Cataracts are rare in babies and children. But children may be born with cataracts or develop them as a baby, child, or adolescent. Some things that may cause cataracts in a child include genetics, infection during pregnancy, low birth weight, an eye injury, and some medicines.

What are the signs of cataracts in a child?

Here are some signs of cataracts in children:

  • You may see a cloudiness in your child's eye.
  • The child may not look directly at or respond to faces or large, colorful objects. A baby who can't find small objects when crawling on the floor may have cataracts.
  • The child may scowl, squint, or shield their eyes more than expected when in bright sunlight.
  • The child's eyes may be misaligned and not focus on the same point at the same time.
  • You may see a white reflex instead of a red reflex in your child's eye. For example, in a photo of the child, one eye may appear white while the other has the normal "red eye" look.
  • The affected eyes may have repetitive wandering movements. This is usually a later sign of cataracts.

How are cataracts in children diagnosed?

Most of the time, cataracts in newborns are found at birth during a doctor exam before leaving the hospital or during well-child checks. If a doctor finds signs of a cataract during an eye exam, your child will be referred to a specialist for diagnosis and treatment.

How are they treated?

Children who have vision problems from cataracts usually need surgery to remove the cataract. This is done to help prevent lasting vision loss and to be sure that normal vision will develop. A small number of 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.

Early treatment is best. A baby's vision develops quickly 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 doesn't develop as it should. Lazy eye (amblyopia) and other eye problems may occur. Having cataract surgery in the first few months of life can lower the risk of having these vision problems.

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Cataracts Eye Problems in Children: Signs to Look For

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