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Keep Your Eye On Your Kid's Vision

Eye exams are crucial to spot and correct difficulties

SUNDAY, Nov. 18, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- To children with vision problems, the world is simply a blurry place. And because these children aren't aware of how things should appear, their parents may be oblivious to the problem, too.

At the very least, such problems can stall a child's reading and development skills. But for almost one-in-20 children between 3 and 5 years of age, undiagnosed and untreated vision difficulties can result in permanent problems, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

"Children with uncorrected nearsightedness or farsightedness don't know what clear vision is like," says Dr. Joseph Kubacki, chairman of ophthalmology at Temple University Childrens Medical Center in Philadelphia. "That's why it's important to have your child's eyes checked early."

Most American children are given eye exams either at birth or during the first six months of life. But after that, it may be several years before they receive another exam, unless parents or doctors pick up on potential problems.

And what are some of the clues parents should be looking for?

"Some classic symptoms include rubbing of the eyes, squinting, headaches, squinting with one eye, frowning when they want to look at something, or perhaps a real disinterest in reading," Kubacki says.

"Another clue is sitting close to the television, although lots of kids do that without having an eye problem," he adds.

Two of the most common problems kids experience are being nearsighted or farsighted, both of which can be treated simply by prescribing glasses.

A more serious problem is a condition believed to be genetic and known as amblyopia, more commonly called "lazy eye" or "misaligned vision." It leads to decreased vision in an eye that did not develop normally.

The problem can be treated by simply having the child wear a patch on the "good" eye, forcing the defective eye to correct itself, says Dr. Byron Demorest, a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis, Medical School.

"The brain sees the blurry picture through that eye and therefore tunes out the use of the eye," he says. "But by wearing the patch, you can force the eye to work and the vision usually improves dramatically."

Demorest says failure to treat the condition can result in problems ranging from poor school performance to permanent impairment in one eye.

Many parents may find the notion of trying to get their young child to wear (without breaking) glasses a bit daunting. But, Kubacki says that once kids realize they have improved vision with glasses, getting them to wear the glasses may be easier than parents think.

"Kids also don't like to wear shoes at first, but they soon learn that they stub their toes or hurt their feet if they don't wear them. It's the same thing with the glasses," he says. "If the glasses help them see better and function better in school, the majority of children will use them voluntarily because it does help them."

Parents should be aware that the effort is worth it, considering the alternative, he adds.

"Some parents are reluctant to patch the child or have them wear glasses," Kubacki says. "But when you consider that it's the best bargain in medicine, where you can give someone a lifetime of good vision at very little cost and essentially no risk to the patient, it's a very cost-effective way to help that child."

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that children typically have their eyes screened once between birth and 3 months of age; once between age 6 months and 1 year; once at 3 years of age; and again at 5 years of age.

If any of the following factors apply, however, parents should check with an ophthalmologist about how often to bring in their children for exams:

  • developmental delays;
  • premature birth;
  • personal or family history of eye disease;
  • African-American heritage (African-Americans are at increased risk for glaucoma);
  • previous serious eye injury;
  • use of certain medications (check with your eye doctor);
  • some diseases that affect the whole body, such as diabetes or HIV infection.

What to Do: The American Academy of Ophthalmology offers this useful article, "Eyeglasses for Infants and Children." And the American Academy of Pediatrics offers information on common vision and eye problems.

SOURCES: Interviews with Byron Demorest, M.D., pediatric ophthalmologist, Sacramento, and clinical professor of ophthalmology, University of California, Davis, Medical School; Joseph Kubacki, M.D., chairman of ophthalmology, Temple University Childrens Medical Center, Philadelphia; Temple University press release
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