Although we usually think of cataracts as affecting elderly people, they also can affect infants and young children. Sometimes, they may be present at birth (congenital). While rare, congenital cataracts are a leading cause of visual loss and blindness in children.
What is a cataract?
A cataract is a clouding of the lens (the transparent tissue inside the eye that helps bring light rays to focus on the retina). A cataract usually shows up as a white reflection in the center of the child’s pupil.Cataracts in children need to be detected and treated early so their vision can develop properly.
How are cataracts treated in children?
If a baby is born with a cataract that blocks most of the light entering the eye, the affected lens has to be removed surgically to let the baby’s vision to develop.
Most pediatric ophthalmologists recommend that this procedure be performed during the first month after birth. After the clouded lens is removed, the baby must be fitted with a contact lens or with an eyeglass correction. At the age of about two years, the placement of a lens implant within the eye is recommended. In addition, visual rehabilitation of the affected eye will almost always involve using a patch on the opposite eye until the child’s eyes are fully mature (at about age 10 years).
Occasionally a child will be born with a small pinpoint cataract that, at first, will not affect visual development. These tiny cataracts often do not require treatment; however, they need to be monitored carefully to ensure that they do not become large enough to interfere with normal vision.
What causes cataracts?
In many cases, the cause of cataracts in infants cannot be determined. Cataracts may be blamed on a tendency to inherit them from parents; they may result from trauma or injury to the eye; or they may occur as a result of viral infections such as German measles and chickenpox or an infection from other microorganisms, such as those that cause toxoplasmosis or Zika.
What to know if you’re pregnant
To protect an unborn child from cataracts and from other serious disorders, take care to avoid unnecessary exposure to infectious diseases if you’re pregnant. In addition, as a precaution against toxoplasmosis (a disease caused by parasites), avoid handling cat litter or eating raw meat, both of which may contain the organism that causes this disease.