Eye and vision problems in children are a significant public health concern. In the United States, about one in four school-age children wear corrective lenses and may have conditions that can affect behaviors and their ability to learn. Eye and vision disorders that go undetected or untreated can lead to problems in a child’s normal development including school performance, social interactions, and self-esteem.

According to Dr. Jon Pederson, O.D. at Southglenn Eyecare in Denver, it is important for children to have a comprehensive baseline eye exam between the ages of six and 12 months, with the second exam between ages three and five.

“Even at such an early age, comprehensive eye exams can reveal any problems with near- or far-sightedness, astigmatism, lazy eyes, congenital cataracts or tumors,” said Dr. Pederson. “These conditions can be highly treatable, so the earlier we detect issues, the better, so that vision doesn’t worsen over time.”

Early recognition of visual disorders is especially important in children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Even though comprehensive pediatric eye and vision exams are essential for timely diagnoses and treatment, many children do not receive comprehensive eye care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that less than 15 percent of preschoolers nationwide receive comprehensive eye exams by an eye care professional and less than 22 percent receive some kind of visual screening. 

Comprehensive eye exams are different from vision screenings. Vision screenings can possibly identify undetected eye problems and then refer children to an optometrist for a more detailed comprehensive exam that leads to accurate diagnoses. However, these screenings can miss a wide range of vision problems. In fact, they provide less than four percent of the eye tests needed to help children see and miss up to 75 percent of children with vision problems. Of the children found to have eye problems through screening, 61 percent never visit the doctor and get help.

In the Denver metro area, school districts provide yearly vision screening tests, the results of which will determine if the child should see an optometrist for more testing. However, each school conducts one screening per year so if the children are absent at that time, they miss out. There is an organization known as InfantSEE®, which provides free comprehensive eye exams for children six-to-12 months of age.

“Often, parents will not bring their child in until they’re seven or eight years old, and if there is a problem at that time, they are devastated and blaming themselves, even though the problems can most often be treated,” added Dr. Pederson. “That’s why it’s best to see your optometrist sooner rather than later.”

Eye injuries

Every year, there are 70,000 eye injuries in the United States. More than 40 percent of eye injuries every year are related to sports or recreational activities, so the American Optometric Association (AOA) with the Association of Camp Nursing (ACN) have compiled a checklist of essential summer and back-to-school safety tips for children before they leave for camp, school, the sports fields, or when they jump in the pool.

In order to avoid common eye injuries and boost eye health, it’s important to:

Set up general health checkups: Parents should follow general health checkup procedures annually that include a regular, comprehensive eye exam.

Wear safety glasses for specific activities: For children who already wear glasses, they should participate in appropriate sports activities with sports glasses and appropriate eye and head protection. For older kids who may be working in their garage or with potentially dangerous equipment, it’s always best to wear safety glasses.

Wear the right helmet/face mask: For those sports and activities that include head-to-face physical contact or where materials may be flying quickly in the air near the face, it’s essential to use appropriate protective gear. For those who don’t have protective gear, they should avoid sports and activities where there’s a risk of head and eye injuries.

Encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables: Make sure your child is eating healthful foods. It is important to eat nourishing foods and not over-consume junk food, fast foods or highly processed foods to stay healthy and have energy while attending school, and participating in after-school activities such as sports. Fruits and vegetables have been proven to provide vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, essential for eye health.

Use goggles when swimming: Children who are first-time swimmers should consider being enrolled in a few lessons before jumping into the pool. The AOA recommends all swimmers wear watertight goggles to reduce the risk for infection and inflammation. Contact lens wearers are at a higher risk because the lenses can hold contaminants in the eye, therefore, watertight goggles are especially important if children wear contacts, but it’s preferable to remove the lenses. Water and contact lenses do not mix.

Avoid ultra-violet light: To protect from the sun, seek shade, wear sunglasses, and avoid looking directly at the sun.

“In Denver, we’re a mile closer to the sun, so it’s important for kids to wear sunglasses to avoid UV exposure,” added Dr. Pederson. “By wearing sunglasses at a young age, kids can reduce the chances of suffering from macular degeneration or cancer-related eye problems later in life.”

When a child experiences an eye injury from any sort of accident, it’s best to see an optometrist right away, according to Dr. Pederson. “The most common eye injuries we see include scratched corneas, black eyes, and possible trauma to the back of the eye. If you take your child to the emergency room first, you’ll likely be referred to an optometrist to be treated anyway.”

Treatments for injuries as well as other vision conditions can range from observation to prescription eyeglasses, contact lenses, eye exercises, and surgery.

For more information about eye health and the latest guidelines from professional organizations, visit Colorado Optometric Association , American Optometric Association or InfantSEE®.  These sites provide explanations of eye conditions and doctor locator information.