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Cataracts are cloudy patches in the lens of the eye that can make vision blurred or misty. They are called childhood cataracts (also known as congenital or infantile cataracts) when a child is born with them.
Cataracts in babies and children are rare. An estimated 200 children are born with cataracts every year.
They can develop in one or both eyes, and one eye can often be more affected than the other.
The lens (the transparent structure at the front of the eye) is normally clear. It allows light to pass through to the back of the eye. If parts of the lens become cloudy (opaque), light cannot pass through the cloudy patches.
Over time, these cloudy patches usually become bigger, and more of them develop. As less light is able to pass through the lens, vision may become blurry or cloudy. The cloudier the lens becomes, the more sight will be affected.
Read more about the symptoms of childhood cataracts.
Childhood cataracts are often referred to as:
What causes cataracts in children?
In most cases of childhood cataracts, there is no family history and the exact cause is not known.
However, some possible causes include genetic conditions or infections during pregnancy. Read more about causes of childhood cataracts.
Although childhood cataracts that run in the family cannot be prevented, you may want to read about preventing childhood cataracts for advice on avoiding infections during pregnancy and genetic testing and counselling.
How are cataracts in children diagnosed?
In the UK, parents are offered two full physical examinations for their newborn babies as part of the Healthy Child Programme, which includes a test for congenital cataracts.
Older children may show signs of cataracts if their vision is affected. For example, your child may:
See your GP if you are concerned about your child's vision.
Read more about diagnosing cataracts in children.
Treating cataracts in children
Cataracts can be mild in babies and children, and often have little or no effect on their vision. However, they can also slow down or stop the normal development of sight during childhood.
Cataract surgery can be performed to remove the cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial lens. Children will often need to wear glasses after the operation, or a patch to strengthen the vision in the weaker eye. Most children with childhood cataracts live a full and normal life.
Read more about how childhood cataracts are treated.
Are there any risks?
Cataracts that are not treated can sometimes cause irreversible damage to eyesight, including blindness.
Cataract operations are generally very successful, with a low risk of serious complications. The most common risk associated with cataract surgery is developing a condition called posterior capsule opacification (PCO), which causes cloudy vision to return.
If this happens, your child may need surgery to correct it. Speak to your opthalmologist before cataract surgery to discuss any risks.
Read more about the complications of childhood cataracts.