The gift of eyesight is precious, yet often taken for granted. The foundation for a lifetime of eye health and good vision is established in childhood. In honor of August’s status as Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month, here is what you need to know about pediatric eye health.
Being able to see at full capacity is critical to a child’s learning and development. Vision has a critical role in a child’s world by aiding in language comprehension and the ability to discern nonverbal social cues. Having full visual ability also helps to keep children safe, allowing them to be alert to dangers in their environment.
According to statistics from the National Center for Children’s Vision and Eye Health, up to 1 in 17 preschoolers has an undetected vision disorder. Vision disorders are even more common in children who are in Head Start programs, with an estimated 1 in 5 of these children having an undiagnosed eye condition.
Some of the most common eye conditions in childhood include:
- Refractive errors: Visual conditions such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism fall into this category, and they represent the most common group of visual conditions in children.
- Strabismus: In this condition, there is a misalignment of the eyes, which can cause other vision problems. This condition, which affects 2 to 4 percent of the U.S. population, can be corrected with ocular therapy or surgery.
- Vision Loss: This can include partial blindness (difficulty seeing fully, even with corrective lenses or glasses) and full blindness. It is estimated that more than 1 million children in the U.S. suffer from vision loss.
- Amblyopia: Known colloquially as a “lazy eye,” amblyopia is the most common cause of vision loss in children. It occurs when communication between the brain and the eye is impaired. This disconnect can be due to a number of factors, including cataracts, retinal scarring, or strabismus and, if undetected, can lead to blindness.
Additionally, children are also susceptible to eye infections, eye injuries, and, more rarely, malignancies of the eye.
Children with vision conditions benefit greatly from early detection because these conditions are often completely treatable. As a parent, it is important to know when your child’s vision should be evaluated, how often, and by whom. Fortunately, general exams and screenings are already integrated into the routine well-child checks that are conducted by your child’s pediatrician at regular intervals, depending on your child’s age. Eye evaluations begin at birth and continue throughout the school years.
Particularly as children approach school age, it is important that their vision is assessed by their pediatrician to ensure they are able to view the board and other important elements of a classroom. If your child does not pass a vision screening, then he or she should receive a referral for a full evaluation by a pediatric eye doctor. However, experts recommend against generalized annual comprehensive eye screening in children.
In addition to being proactive in the fight against eye disease and vision loss, it is also vital to take measures to prevent unintentional eye injuries. According to the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, nearly <a "noopener" target="_blank" href="https://aapos.org/home">half of all eye injuries that occur in children are the result of sports and recreational activities, so encouraging regular use of protective eye gear is crucial.
Other measures that you can take to protect your child’s eyes include the following:
- Make sure your home is safeguarded with child locks to prevent accidental eye exposures to bleach and other household chemicals.
- Limit screen time to reduce eye-straining and premature eye aging.
- Encourage a balanced diet with vitamins that support eye health, such as vitamin A.
- Encourage your children to wear sunglasses or a sun visor when outside during peak sun hours.
- Discourage dangerous activities such as running with sharp items or playing with fireworks.
- Familiarize yourself with eye safety first aid tips.
For more resources, make sure to check out the National Center for Children’s Vision and Eye Health. You can also engage your kids by letting them partner with you in learning about their own eye health using these resources from the National Eye Institute.
Libby Pellegrini is a nationally certified physician assistant. She has worked in numerous healthcare settings, including the rural United States, an inner-city Level I trauma center, several suburban acute care centers, and a boutique, personalized medicine clinic in Southeast Asia. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.