the importance of optometry exams

3 Things Parents Need To Know About Congenital Cataracts

The lens is a clear structure in the front of the eye that helps to focus light. A cataract occurs when the lens becomes clouded and prevents light from entering the eye. Cataracts are typically associated with seniors, but surprisingly, they can also occur in infancy. Here are three things parents need to know about congenital cataracts.

What causes congenital cataracts?

Infants can be born with cataracts for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, they can occur if the mother develops a viral infection during pregnancy. Viral infections that have been linked to cataract formation include rubella, which is similar to measles, and varicella, the virus which causes chickenpox.

Congenital cataracts can also be caused by other health conditions like myotonic dystrophy (a type of muscular dystrophy), galactosemia (a metabolic disorder), or Lowe's syndrome (a genetic disease). Your child's doctor will evaluate them to determine the precise cause of their cataracts.

What are the signs of congenital cataracts?

Cataracts lead to blurred vision, but since infants aren't able to tell you they have vision problems, you need to rely on screening to identify the problem. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants are screened for cataracts by the time they're two months old.

The screening test, called a red reflex examination, is simple and won't hurt your infant. In a dark room, an optometrist will examine your child's eyes with the aid of an ophthalmoscope, which is a lighted magnifying device. This tool allows the optometrist to see opaque areas on your child's lenses.

How are congenital cataracts treated?

If cataracts are found, they need to be surgically treated as soon as possible. Ideally, surgery will be performed before your child is 17 weeks old.

This surgery is more complicated than the cataract surgery performed in adults. In addition to removing the clouded lenses, the surgeon will also need to remove the cap that covers the lenses, since this clouds easily in children, and the vitreous, the filling inside the eye. Artificial lenses can't be placed during this surgery, as it's not yet known if they're viable in children younger than six months, so they will be placed in a future surgery.

Cataract removal surgery in infants leads to an increased risk of glaucoma, a condition characterized by excessive pressure inside the eye. About 10% of children who have cataracts removed will develop glaucoma later, so your child will need regular follow ups with an optometrist to get their eye pressure checked.

If you haven't already, take your infant to an optometrist to be screened for cataracts.