5 Things Parents Need To Know About Pediatric Cataracts

Cataracts are usually thought of as a disease of the old, but very young children can develop them as well. Untreated, cataracts lead to vision loss and even blindness. Here's what all parents need to know about this scary eye condition.

What are the signs of pediatric cataracts?

Cataracts cause blurred vision, but an infant or young child won't be able to tell you that their vision is blurry. You need to stay alert for changes in the appearance of your child's eyes or changes in their behavior.

Cataracts cause the cornea, the clear lens that covers the pupil, to become cloudy. This can affect the whole cornea or just part of it, and it can affect one or both eyes. Once the condition advances, the cataracts will become the color of milk and will become more opaque. Check your child's eyes regularly for this cloudiness. If you notice any changes in your child's corneas, a visit to the optometrist is in order.

Your child's behavior can also offer clues that their vision is being affected by cataracts. If your child is squinting, frequently rubbing their eyes, or has watery eyes, they may blurred vision caused by cataracts.

What causes cataracts in children?

Pediatric cataracts have many causes, and these causes vary depending on whether the cataracts are unilateral (in one eye) or bilateral (in both eyes).

Unilateral cataracts are often caused by a developmental problem in that eye. One of these problems is lenticonus, a conical cornea. A normal cornea is shaped like a contact lens, but children with lenticonus have corneas that bulge outwards like cones. Other examples of developmental problems are underdeveloped tissue in the front of the eye or a tumor.

Bilateral cataracts often have a genetic link. They are often a symptom of other genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, Edward syndrome, or Patau syndrome. Muscular dystrophy, a genetic muscle wasting disease, can also cause cataracts to form in both eyes. About 60% of children with bilateral cataracts will be diagnosed with another genetic condition.

Will your child need surgery?

Surgery is the only way to treat a cataract, so your child will definitely need surgery. Your child will be referred to an ophthalmologist for this procedure. During this procedure, your child's clouded cornea will be removed and replaced with a new lens. The new lens may be donor tissue or it may be an artificial cornea made from synthetic materials.

What is the prognosis for pediatric cataracts?

Cataracts can be removed, but your child may still have eye problems once the cataracts have been treated. Cataracts impair the development of a child's vision and can lead to other eye conditions such as lazy eye or glaucoma.

Lazy eye develops when one eye is stronger than the other. A child with a unilateral cataract will have one strong eye and one weak eye, and the strong eye will dominate. Over time, the weak eye will forget how to see, and become "lazy."

Glaucoma is a condition that causes high pressure inside the eye. It affects about 10% of children with cataracts. The raised pressure inside the eye can damage the retina and the optic nerve, causing vision loss. Children who have had cataracts need to be screened for glaucoma regularly.

How common are pediatric cataracts?

Cataracts are common among seniors, but they're very rare among children. In the United States, between 0.012% and 0.06% of children have cataracts.

Cataracts don't just affect seniors. Infants and young children are also at risk, so parents need to stay alert for the signs of cataracts. If you think your child has a cataract, you need to take your child to an ophthalmologist right away.