Your Child & Your Eye Doctor

Just like adults, children need to have their eyes examined. This need begins at birth and continues through adulthood.

Following are common recommendations for when a child needs to be screened, and what is looked for at each stage.

A child’s first eye exam should be done either right at or shortly after birth. This is especially true for children who were born prematurely and have a very low birth weight and may need to be given oxygen. This is mainly done to screen for a disease of the retina called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), in which the retina does not develop properly as a result of the child receiving high levels of oxygen. Although rarer today due to the levels being monitored more closely, it is still a concern for premature babies.

The next time an eye exam is in order is around 6 months. At this stage, your pediatric eye doctor will check your child’s basic visual abilities by making them look at lights, respond to colors, and be able to follow a moving object.

Your child’s ocular alignment will also be measured to ensure that he or she does not have strabismus, a constant inward or outward turning of one or both eyes. Parents are encouraged to look for these symptoms at home because swift intervention with surgery to align the eyes at this stage is crucial for their ocular and visual development.

It is also imperative for parents and medical professionals to be on the lookout for retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye that more commonly affects young children than adults. At home, this might show up in a photo taken with a flash, where the reflection in the pupil is white rather than red. Other symptoms can include eye pain, eyes not moving in the same direction, pupils always being wide open, and irises of different colors. While these symptoms can be caused by other things, having a doctor check them immediately is important because early treatment can save your child’s sight, but advanced cases can lead to vision loss and possibly death if the cancer spreads.

After the 6-month exam, I usually recommend another exam around age 5, then yearly afterward. There are several reasons for this gap. First, any parent with a 2- to 4-year-old knows that it’s difficult for them to sit still for anything, let alone an eye exam. Trying to examine this young of a patient can be frustrating for the doctor, the parent, and the child. Nobody wins. By age 5, children are typically able to respond to questions and can (usually) concentrate on the task at hand. If necessary at this stage, their eyes will be measured for a prescription for glasses and checked for amblyopia, commonly known as a “lazy eye”. Detected early enough, amblyopia can be treated properly under close observation by the eye doctor.

The recommendations listed above are solely one doctor’s opinion of when children should have eye exams. The various medical bodies in pediatrics, ophthalmology, and optometry have different guidelines regarding exam frequency, but agree that while it is not essential that a healthy child’s eyes be examined every year, those with a personal or family history of inheritable eye disease should be followed more closely.

Hereditary Eye Diseases

Do you have family members with eye-related conditions?

The two main eye diseases in adults that have a genetic link are glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Glaucoma is a deterioration of the optic nerve caused by pressure in the eye or poor blood flow to the optic nerve. It has no symptoms at its onset. In most cases if you wait until you begin to realize there is something wrong with your vision to get glaucoma diagnosed, upwards of 70% of your optic nerve will have already been destroyed. Once the nerve is destroyed there is no way of reversing that today and treatment is focused on trying to preserve whatever nerve tissue is left.

Your chances of getting glaucoma are four to 10 times higher if you have a close relative with glaucoma. Getting your eyes examined regularly is always important but even more so if there is a family history of glaucoma.

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in most of the developed world. It too can cause serious vision loss if you wait until you have significant symptoms before a diagnosis. There are now some preventative treatments for AMD--the earlier it is detected the better off you will be.

Having a close family member with AMD may increase your chances of having the disease as much as 50 percent, making timely diagnosis and treatment imperative.

Other eye diseases that run in families include strabismus (crossed eyes), myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), and astigmatism.

All of these family connections are important to know so that you and your eye doctor can together take the best possible care of your eyes. Before your next eye exam ask your relatives if they have any history of eye disease. It might not make for the lightest of conversation at your next family gathering but it could help save your vision.

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