A baby opening their blue eyes.
Infant catarcts can either be genetic or it can be caused by an infection during pregnancy.

What Are Infant Cataracts?

In healthy eyes, the lenses are typically clear and transparent. A cataract occurs when the lens becomes cloudy and opaque. Most people consider cataracts as something that occurs with old age. In rare cases, infant cataracts can occur. Infants can be born with congenital cataracts or develop them through an infection. Cataracts that develop in younger babies are known as infant cataracts. Infant cataracts may occur in one or both eyes.

The lens of the eye is located right behind the iris. The lens allows light to shine into the retina, which creates images. If the lens of the eye is cloudy, an accurate image does not form. The light that does pass through the clouded lens can scatter when going through the retina. For the eyes to see full images, the lens must be clear. Because of this distortion, cataracts lead to blurry and distorted vision.

Although it is not lethal, infant cataracts are a cause for worry. For infants, being able to see the world around them is an essential part of the first stages of awareness. Infant cataracts prevent this crucial stage from occurring, which is why pediatricians often take quick action when infant cataracts are identified.

What Causes Infant Cataracts?

Most are hereditary or caused by chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome. However, there are times when they develop from infection. During pregnancy, the infant's mother may develop an infection, resulting in cataract development in her baby. Some conditions during pregnancy that may cause this condition:

  • Influenza
  • Herpes simplex
  • Herpes zoster
  • Chickenpox
  • Measles or rubella
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Syphilis
  • Poliomyelitis

What Are Infant Cataract Symptoms?

Not all infant cataracts are immediately apparent and the fact that infants cannot yet articulate their problems makes detecting infant cataracts a challenge. The inability to communicate their needs is why it is essential for parents to be actively engaged in monitoring their infants.

If a small gray or white spot is found in an infant's eye, parents can shine a flashlight into the infant's eye. Upon shining the light, parents can find abnormalities in their infant’s pupil.

How Are Infant Cataracts Diagnosed?

Most cases are diagnosed within the first day or two of birth when the infant is examined by a healthcare professional. Other times, a pediatrician may spot them during a well-baby exam. Parents may notice the white, cloudy appearance of a child's eye and report it to a healthcare professional.

When infant cataracts are suspected, the infant is typically referred to an eye doctor. Most of the infant cataract testing can be done within the doctor’s office. They will check intraocular pressure and conduct a close examination of the infant’s eye function.

What Are the Treatments for Infant Cataracts?

This condition needs to be treated as soon as possible. An infant's eyes are still learning to see the world around them. Without treatment, infant cataracts can lead to lazy eyes.

Cataracts also impact the processing of information between the eyes and the brain. It's difficult for the brain to relearn these processes once they are ingrained, which can lead to vision loss. This is why the early treatment of infant cataracts is crucial.

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Treatment is possible but requires a long-term approach. The type of treatment depends on the type, cause and severity of the infant cataracts.

Surgical removal may be necessary. Though this may sound worrisome to parents, a specialist who has special tools and medications specifically made for infants conducts the surgery. Infant cataract surgery is generally safe.

After surgery, an eye patch may be necessary if only one eye was affected. Interestingly, the patch is placed on the healthy eye and not the eye that underwent surgery. By doing so, eyesight is prevented in the healthy eye and is only allowed in the affected eye. The patch forces the affected eye to process visual cues and work harder, making it stronger.

Some cases may require eye drops instead of an eye patch. The eye drops may serve the same purpose, limiting eyesight in the healthy eye to force the affected eye to develop normal sight.

If the healthy eye were allowed to see, the affected eye would rely on the healthy eye — never learning to process images appropriately. For infants who undergo cataract removal in both eyes, patches are not usually necessary. Both eyes tend to recuperate at the same rate without compromising the other.

What Are the Risks of Infant Cataract Surgery?

In general, infant cataract surgery is considered low risk and rarely leads to any severe complications. Most risks or side effects of cataract surgery are minor and can be addressed with medications.

The most major risk from infant cataract surgery is the development of glaucoma, which is rare. Glaucoma is when pressure builds in the eye, which can lead to permanent damage to vital parts of the eyes.

Can Infant Cataracts Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent infant cataracts is for a mother to receive regular wellness checks throughout her pregnancy. By following the guidelines set by a doctor, following the recommendations for vaccines and avoiding possible infections, a mother can significantly reduce the chances for infant cataracts.

Unfortunately, cataracts are not preventable in the cases where they are hereditary. If interested, parents may seek genetic counseling to inquire about the possible hereditary risks they may pass down to their child.

In Summary

Vision is vital to a child's development. Because of their impact on an infant development, infant cataracts require treatment. Cataract surgery and vision treatments may be necessary; however, most infants who undergo cataract surgery go on to live healthy lives.