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 a child may be born with them. 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:

  • 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 his or her eyes more than expected when in bright sunlight. That's 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.
  • 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.

If a child has a cataract in only one eye, you may not be able to tell.

How are cataracts in children diagnosed?

Most of the time. cataracts in newborns are found at birth or during well-child checks. They may be found if the child's eyes don't move together or if the child seems to have trouble seeing, has a cloudy lens, or has a medical condition that increases the risk for cataracts.

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) occurs. Without surgery in the first few months of life, the child won't ever see well with that eye.

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