Children preparing to enter the public school system this year will need more
than the usual required immunizations.
A new Kentucky law requires every child entering a public school to have proof
of a vision examination performed either by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist.
"We hope to identify children who need glasses, have eye muscle problems,
or demonstrate other vision problems, so that they can be treated appropriately
as early as possible," says Julia Stevens, M.D., a pediatric ophthalmologist
at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.
"If problems such as amblyopia, which is weak vision in one or both
eyes, aren't caught by the time a child is 7 years old, treatment often is difficult
or not possible. Performing a vision examination early will help us fix eye
problems while we have a chance," says Stevens, an associate professor of ophthalmology
in the UK College of Medicine.
For example, strabismus, which is a wandering or misalignment of one
eye, is a common cause of vision loss, and it's a treatable condition. About
3 to 5 percent of children have strabismus or amblyopia, which may not be visible
to the naked eye.
The new law does not require that a child's eyes be dilated for the
exam, but Stevens highly recommends it.
"A dilated exam helps us pick up…problems that could be missed if a
child's eyes aren't dilated during the exam," she says.
A child's physician should screen for vision problems at the 6-month
checkup. The ideal age for an exam by an eye care specialist is 3 to 4 years.
"By that age, children have enough verbal skills to identify items on
a picture eye chart, and we can measure vision accurately and perform an eye
muscle test," Stevens says.
It's even more important for a child to have an eye exam at age 3 if
there's a family history of poor vision or other eye problems. Children who
were premature at birth and children with any type of neurological disorder
are at an increased risk for eye problems.
If a parent notices a child's eyes are drifting or turning, or if the child
doesn't seem to be able to recognize objects at a distance, a child should see
an eye care specialist as soon as possible.
Parents sometimes make the mistake of thinking a problem will correct itself,
but that frequently is not the case. Eyeglasses, medication, patches, and/or
surgery can be used to correct eye problems, which may take years of treatment.
Many parents worry that playing video games, watching television, and
using a computer may affect their children's sight, but Stevens says that, in
general, these activities are not harmful to vision.
"Your child's eyes are very important," Stevens says. "If you ask senior
citizens what sense they value the most, they'll tell you it's their eyesight.
For a lifetime of good vision, it's important for a child to be screened early."