CHOC Children's

Cataracts

Simulation photograph: normal vision
Simulation photograph: cataract

What is a cataract?

A cataract is a clouding or opacity of the lens - which is normally transparent. The opacity prevents light rays from passing through the lens and focusing on the retina - the light sensitive tissue lining located in the back of the eye. Cataracts can affect either one eye (unilateral) or both eyes (bilateral).

Did You Know?

The word "cataract" literally means "waterfall." For persons with an advanced cataract that covers a large portion of the eye lens, vision can be described as trying to see through a waterfall.

Some cataracts are small and do not cause any visual symptoms. However, other, more progressive, cataracts can cause visual problems in children. Cataracts in children are uncommon.

What causes cataracts?

A child may be born with the disease (congenital), or it may develop later in life (acquired). Possible causes of cataracts include the following:

  • trauma
  • diabetes
  • poisoning
  • steroid use
  • other childhood diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • complications from other eye diseases, such as glaucoma
  • maternal infections during pregnancy, e.g. rubella

The majority of congenital cataracts (those present at birth) are present in children who also have other eye problems or other health problems. In some children born with congenital cataracts, the condition is due to a genetic cause such as a metabolic disorder (caused by an inherited enzyme deficiency) or a chromosome abnormality (i.e., Down syndrome).

Anatomy of the eye, internal
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What are the symptoms of cataracts?

The following are the most common symptoms of cataracts. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • white pupil upon flashlight examination
  • misaligned eyes
  • involuntary rhythmic movements of the eyes back and forth, up and down, around, or mixed (nystagmus)
  • cloudy or blurry vision
  • decreased vision
Illustration of a cataract
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The symptoms of cataracts may resemble other eye conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

What are the different types of cataracts?

According to the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, cataract types are subdivided accordingly:

  • congenital cataracts
    Some babies are born with cataracts or develop them early in childhood, often in both eyes. Some congenital cataracts do not affect vision, but others do and need to be removed.
  • secondary cataracts
    Secondary cataracts develop primarily as a result of another disease occurrence in the body (i.e., juvenile diabetes or another ocular problem). Secondary cataract development has also been linked to some medications (i.e., steroids).
  • traumatic cataracts
    Eye(s) that have sustained an injury may develop a traumatic cataract either immediately following the incident, or months later.
  • age-related cataracts
    The majority of cataracts are related to aging.
Picture of a standard eye chart

How are cataracts diagnosed?

Diagnostic procedures for cataracts may include:

  • visual acuity test - the common eye chart test, which measures vision ability at a fixed distance.
  • pupil dilation - the pupil is widened with eyedrops to allow a close-up examination of the eye's retina and lens.

Other tests may also be performed to help learn more about the health and structure of your child's eyes.

Treatment for cataracts:

Treatment is tailored to the child and the type of cataract he/she has. In some cases, vision loss caused by a cataract may be aided by eyeglasses or contact lenses. However, surgical removal of cataracts is often recommended in infants and children.

Protect your child's eyes from the sun:

Nearly half of American parents do not regularly provide their children with sunglasses that protect their eyes from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. Exposure to sun may set children up for potential vision problems later in life.

The sun can cause sunburned corneas and raise the risk for future cancer of the eyelid. Children also tend to spend more time outdoors than their parents, often in places where there is a lot of sun reflection - beaches, pools, and amusement parks. Most UV eye damage is cumulative.

Protecting a child's eyes from the sun is simple:

  • Make sure your child wears a wide-brimmed hat that shades his/her face.
  • Buy your child sunglasses that block both kinds of UV (A and D) rays.

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It is important to remember the health information found on this website is for reference only not intended to replace the advice and guidance of your healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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