What is a cataract?
Cataracts are any type of clouding that occurs to the natural lens of the eye. This lens sits right behind the pupil (black opening) and is responsible for focusing light on the back of the eye. It also helps protect the back of the eye from UV damage by absorbing these harmful rays before they can travel back to the more sensitive structures.
This absorption takes its toll on the health of the lens, leading to chemical and structural changes that decrease the clarity of the lens. In fact, UV exposure is one of the leading causes of cataracts in adults and starts early in life. Approximately 80 percent of all UV damage occurs before the age of 18. Providing our children with UV protection can prevent eye diseases later in life. Children benefit greatly from the use of sunglasses and other UV coated lenses. It is also helpful to encourage wearing a brimmed hat while outdoors.
Can children have cataracts?
Not all cataracts are caused by this cumulative UV damage. Children can be born with cataracts and this can have a very serious impact on vision. These cataracts obstruct vision, preventing normal visual development during a critical time. This impact on vision is often permanent, making it impossible for the child to see 20/20, even with the best glasses possible. As a parent, it can be difficult to tell if your child has cataracts, as many children do not complain because they don’t know what the world looks like without them. This is one of the many reasons that comprehensive eye exams for infants are vital. Your child’s first eye exam is recommended as early as 6 months old and many optometrists provide free eye exams for these younger patients in conjunction with the American Optometric Association. See www.infantsee.org for more information.
Maureen Plaumann, OD
Pediatric and Vision Therapy Resident, SCCO