Being able to see well is essential for kids' proper cognitive development and learning, says Tanya Sitter, an optometrist in Olds, Alberta. About 60 percent of kids with reading difficulties have undiagnosed vision problems,” she says.
Kids should be screened for common eye problems by age one with a comprehensive exam. (Checkups include a test for coordination using a pen light, and screenings for vision impairment by observing she follows an object with one eye and then the other.) Kids should be seen again by age three and then every year after age five, says Sitter. According to the Canadian Association of Optometrists, annual checkups are covered by provincial health insurance for kids, except in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories. But, in many cases private health plans will cover vision services.
Here are three common eye problems in kids your eye doctor will be checking for during your child’s next exam:
1. A lazy or misaligned eye Strabismus, or misaligned eyes, occurs when one eye turns in, out, up or down, putting it out of alignment. In cases where the eye is chronically misaligned, amblyopia, also know as lazy eye, can develop as well. “Lazy eye is caused by significantly reduced vision in one eye and affects about five percent of kids,” says Sitter. Both conditions can go unnoticed outside of an eye exam. The good news is they can be corrected with glasses or a temporary eye patch, especially if diagnosed in the preschool years, before the brain learns to permanently compensate for the problem.
2. Red or dry eyes “Computer vision syndrome is something I see regularly in my office,” says Sitter. Too much time playing video games or on smart phones is a common culprit for kids and the outcome is complaints of dry, red, itchy eyes. The cure: Cut back on screen time and enforce the 20-20-20 rule, she says. “That’s where they take a break for 20 seconds every 20 minutes to look 20 feet away.” This will relax their eyes and restore normal blinking patterns, lubricating their peepers. Over-the-counter eye drops can provide added relief for this common kids' eye problem— just ask your eye doctor or pharmacist for a recommendation.
3. Refractive errors Nearsightedness (which means difficulty seeing far away) is most common in school-age kids. Far-sightedness (poor vision up close) and astigmatism (a curvature of the eye that distorts vision) are also common problems, and all three issues can be corrected with glasses. Keep in mind that as your kid grows — and her eyes do, too — her prescription is likely to change. Regular annual visits to the eye doctor will ensure that she’s always seeing at her best.
And in other eye troubles... pink eye Red eyes can also signal pink eye (conjunctivitis), inflammation caused by a bacterial or viral infection, or by allergies. The contagious form of pink eye can easily spread on kids’ hands from one eye to another and from kid to kid. Your optometrist or paediatrician can diagnose it and prescribe antibiotic drops if necessary. Frequent hand washing and keeping fingers away from their eyes can stop spreading. Over-the-counter medicated eye drops can provide some relief for non-contagious flare-ups.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2012 issue with the headline "Jeepers peepers," p.36.
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