Bigger Kids

What you need to know about common eye problems

Is it more than just a stray eyelash? Here's what you need to know about your child's eye health.

By Lija Kresowaty
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

When your five-year-old is furiously rubbing her baby blues, it can be tough to tell whether it’s a stray eyelash or something more serious. “Young children often don’t complain about eye problems because they adapt so quickly,” says Nasrin Tehrani, an ophthalmologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “If they can see their food and play with their toys, you might not notice.”

But early detection and prevention of eye problems is the key to maintaining your child’s vision, her overall health and even her brain development. Here are some to watch for:

Conjunctivitis (Pink eye) This inflammation affects the white of the eye and the inside of the eyelid. If your tot has bacterial conjunctivitis, he may have yellowish discharge or crust in his eye, especially first thing in the morning. Viral infections are often accompanied by a cold.

Treatment Viral infections should clear up within a few days on their own, says Tehrani. Because it can be hard to tell the difference between a bacterial or viral infection, though, doctors often prescribe antibiotic drops (such as Polysporin) for either type. “If it’s bacterial, the drops will wipe out the infection, and if it’s viral, they won’t do any harm and will still make the eye more comfortable,” she says. Use moistened cotton balls to remove discharge (always wipe from the inside corner out).

Beware of spreading this pesky problem — get your entire household in the habit of frequent handwashing. During treatment, wash eye drop bottles and compresses in hot water and toss anything that’s come in contact with the infected eye.

Because it doesn’t need direct contact to spread, the viral variety of pink eye is especially contagious and, for that reason, Tehrani suggests keeping your child away from school until the infection has cleared up.


Sty A blocked gland at the base of the eyelashes can cause this painful bump. Infants are particularly prone to these pimple-like infections because they often rub their eyes.

Treatment A topical antibacterial ointment should take care of most sties in about a week. Apply a warm compress to help drain pus and reduce discomfort, advises Toronto optometrist Michael Rotholz. Recurring sties might point to blepharitis, a chronic inflammation of the eyelid related to bacteria that causes dandruff-like debris on the eyelashes. If the entire eyelid is swollen and your child has a fever or neck gland swelling, see a physician right away.

Amblyopia (Lazy eye) This condition of reduced vision in one eye is usually the result of developmental issues rather than physical abnormalities in the eye itself. Although lazy eye is sometimes paired with visibly crossed eyes (or strabismus), it can be tough to spot without an eye exam.

Treatment If found early on, lazy eye can often be completely reversed, says Tehrani. An eye exam will pinpoint whether there’s a physical cause for the weakness, such as a droopy eyelid or a cataract. Common treatments include glasses, patches or blurring eye drops that encourage the use of the weaker eye. Doctors may recommend surgery for more severe cases, or inject Botox into the muscles around the eye with strabismus.

Eye strain Hours spent reading the latest Twilight tome or playing a favourite DS game can leave little eyes feeling dry and tired. Eye strain is temporary and not associated with any long-term damage.


Treatment “When people concentrate on something for extended periods of time, they forget to blink,” says Rotholz. “This is one of the main culprits behind eye fatigue.” He suggests telling your kids about the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break for 20 seconds to focus on something 20 feet away. If your little vampire lover continues to complain about eye strain, suffers from frequent headaches, or has trouble reading for long periods, it may be a sign she needs glasses or has other eye issues.

Allergic reaction Kids with allergies, or other sensitivities, often have itchy, pink, watery eyes. In some cases, only the eyelids are itchy.

Treatment Cool compresses and rinses are the first line of defence, says Rotholz. For more serious reactions, speak to your pharmacist about topical antihistamine drops. If your child’s eyes are watery and his nose is runny, your pharmacist can help you choose a safe oral antihistamine.

Chlorine irritation When your child takes a dip in a chlorinated pool, her eyes sting and turn bloodshot.

Treatment The best way to soothe irritated eyes post-swimming is to take a break from any water in the eyes. The stinging should go away on its own within a few hours, says Tehrani. If not, talk to a doctor. “A prolonged reaction to chlorine could be a sign of an underlying eye condition,” she says. For your next trip to the pool, buy your child goggles to keep her a happy splasher.


Exam time Make sure your child has her eyes examined during her regular checkups. If your doctor thinks there might be a more serious problem, he’ll refer you to an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specializes in eye health). For most eye problems, though, a paediatric ophthalmologist isn’t necessary, says Nasrin Tehrani, an ophthalmologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

Summer Eyes Kids should start wearing sunglasses early on, says Toronto optometrist Michael Rotholz. Sunglasses are basically sunscreen for the eyes and UV damage now can lead to eye problems later on. Most optometrists have UV meters in their office, so you can check out the UV rating of your child’s favourite Spiderman shades.

News flash Try this important at-home test for signs of abnormalities: Take a close look at your family flash photos. If you notice a consistent difference in the “red eye” reflexes of your tot’s left and right eyes (for example, if one is always dimmer), see a doctor immediately — it could be a sign of retinoblastoma, a rare but potentially fatal disease.

This article was originally published on Jun 08, 2009

Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners

I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.