Eye health is an important aspect of overall health and the topic is regularly highlighted with relation to older adults. But what about kids’ eye health?
The general consensus seems to be that children rarely need to worry about their eyes. There are also many misconceptions about keeping a child’s eyes healthy. Common thoughts and beliefs include, ‘Ah, she is still young; glasses will be cumbersome ’ or ‘Don’t look at that boy with pink eye. You’ll get it too!’.
Read on to discover key facts about eye health and what you need to know about taking care of your child’s eyes.
Common Eye Conditions Among Children
Conjunctivitis is one of the most common eye conditions that children suffer from. Conjunctivitis is essentially inflammation of the conjunctiva; a clear tissue over the whites of the eyes that lines the inside of the eyelid.
Allergic and infectious conjunctivitis are the most widespread problems among children. With the presence of pollen in the air and increasing levels of air pollution, it is not strange to come across allergic reactions from these particles in the air. The eye will then become inflamed, which results in conjunctivitis.
Infectious conjunctivitis is spread via human contact. There are many more instances of children with infectious conjunctivitis compared to adults because children tend to have higher levels of physical contact with other children and adults through play and other daily activities.
Dr. Vanniasingham is a consultant ophthalmologist and orbital, lacrimal and eyelid surgeon at Pantai Hospital, Kuala Lumpur. He says that it is possible for newborns to contract eye infections from the birth canal and often, the mother does not even know that she is a carrier.
Another common eye condition that tends to affect children is known as ‘lazy eye’. According to the American Optometric Association, amblyopia or ‘lazy eye’ occurs when there is a lack of development of central vision in one eye. It could also be caused by a large difference in short sightedness or long sightedness between both eyes. The establishment of a stronger eye will cause the signals from the weaker eye to be ignored by the brain.
Dr. Vanniasingham says that it is important to take precautions because there have been occurrences of a false positive for the diagnosis of lazy eye, stemming from the fact that in infancy, a child’s nose bridge will not have fully developed and can produce a ‘pseudo squint’ that is often mistaken to be ‘lazy eye’ instead.
He also highlights that dyslexia — a reading disability — is one of the reasons a false diagnosis can be made. Difficulty in reading the letters can be mistaken for a problem with a child’s vision.
Paediatrician or Ophthalmologist?
It is advised that parents visit their regular paediatrician before whisking Junior off to an eye specialist. During the trip to the paediatrician, the doctor can either treat the child or if needed, refer the child to an ophthalmologist who is experienced in dealing with young patients. This is because diagnosis in young children usually requires different tests than the ones used on adults.
The ophthalmologist will carry out games-based evaluations especially for children who are too young to be able to read or speak. They will also observe the way the child interacts with his surroundings to gauge whether there is a problem with his vision.
So, when should you take your child for his first eye exam? The right answer doesn’t really have much to do with his age. If you spot something amiss with your little one’s vision — no matter how small — it’s time to take him for an eye exam.
Quality of Life
Undiagnosed eye problems can greatly hinder a child’s quality of life. A school-going child may have problems with his grades because he is not able to read notes or see what the teacher has written on the blackboard, at the front of the classroom.
Problems are not just restricted to the classroom. Under-performance in sports can happen because hand-eye coordination is impaired. Eye problems, which affect vision can endanger a child at school because his ability to gauge distances will be impaired, causing him to run into things or fall. He will also fail to see obstructions or changes on the ground.
In younger children, crankiness from frequent headaches caused by the inability to focus on objects can cause behavioural problems and tantrums.
What Parents Can Expect
Be prepared for tantrums especially when treating ‘lazy eye’. The child will have to wear an eye patch over the stronger eye for a fixed number of hours during the day. This is to encourage the brain to be more susceptible to signals from the weaker eye.
There is no doubt that the child will experience frustration when he is forced to wear a patch. Be patient and be ready with soothing words. Most important; be honest. Explain to your child why he has to wear the patch.
Nutrition Nutrition Nutrition
Here are some specific nutrients that will help improve and protect your child’s eye health:
Vitamin A found as Beta Carotene in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes.
Omega-3 Fatty acid is not only good for physical development but great for eyes as they improve lubrication and fight inflammation.
Antioxidants such as Vitamin E fight free radicals that degrade healthy cells. Vitamin E can be found in nuts, which can be easily consumed as a snack.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin, found in spinach, broccoli, kiwi and grapes among others, reduce the risk of chronic eye disease, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Wolf berries (Goji berries) are incredibly high in lutein and zeaxanthin. Add some to soups or stews for a nutrient boost.
Zinc has been shown to transport Vitamin A from the liver to the retina to produce melanin, a protective pigment in the eye. Zinc is present in turkey, oysters and crabs.
Dr. Vanniasingham assures that baby formulas available in the mass market are formulated with enough nutrients to encourage healthy eyes in babies and children. He also recommends breast milk for babies. This will give them an added bonus of nutrients and also a boost for their immune system, which makes it easier to ward of infections.
Signs of Eye Trouble
- Eye rubbing
- Excessive blinking
- Sticky discharge from the eye
Kids and Glasses
- Get glasses with flexible frames as these are more durable.
- Let your child choose the colour of the frames. He will be more likely to use his glasses without fuss.
- Use an elastic band in your child’s favourite colour to anchor the glasses.
- For active children, encourage the use of protective glasses to guard against sports-related eye injuries.
Dr. Vanniasingham recommends contact lenses only for children above 16 years old as they will be able to understand the importance of proper hygiene and the consequences of improper lens care. They will also be more diligent about removing lenses after the recommended time frame.
Side bubble: Why not make it fun?
Break TV time up into chunks. At every commercial, encourage your child to get up and get a glass of water from the kitchen. This is to prevent tired eyes, which is often linked to a variety of eye problems. Studies have shown that people watching a screen blink 50% less, which causes the eyes to become very dry. By going to get a glass of water, your child hydrates and also gets an ‘eye break’. Increased water intake is also good for keeping the eyes sufficiently moist.