Children with uncorrected vision conditions or eye health problems face many obstacles in life - academically, socially and athletically. Children often don't know how they should see and may not know if something is wrong. If a child's eyes and vision suffer, so too will their general health and ability to engage in normal childhood activities. Vision problems have been shown to be associated with delayed development, poor performance in school and social settings and low self-esteem. The sooner eye problems are identified and addressed, the better the outcome in childhood and beyond. High-quality eye care can help children reach their highest potential.

The American Optometric Association's (AOA) evidence-based guidelines for comprehensive pediatric eye and vision examinations recommends that children receive an annual comprehensive eye exam before first grade and annually thereafter, and it informs optometrists which tests and interventions are proven to optimize a child's eye health and vision care. Routine, standard screening tests are used to catch vision problems, but sometimes these tests fail to catch a wide variety of other conditions that only a comprehensive eye exam can catch.

The basic screenings are not enough - a comprehensive eye exam should be one of the most important "to-dos" as children head back to school. Without it, many children will suffer from undetected vision problems, which can lead to learning difficulties - even to the point where a child is thought to have a learning disorder, all because he or she has trouble seeing in the classroom.

According to the AOA, as much as 80 percent of a child's learning occurs through his or her eyes. Reading, writing, using computers and playing sports are among the visual activities children perform daily, so if a child's eyes are not functioning properly, education and participation in sports can suffer.

Childhood myopia - difficulty seeing distant objects clearly - is on the rise. Children spend an extensive amount of time on computers, cellphones and electronic devices that are positioned close to the face, which may lead to this condition. Also, less time spent outdoors means less exercise for a child's distance vision. When children spend time outdoors, they exercise their long-distance vision, which may help slow the "stretching" of the eyeball caused by looking at a screen close up. This helps prevent not only severe myopia, but also sight-threatening conditions as myopic retinopathy and retinal detachment.

Myopia correction measures should begin early in life because early-onset myopia is associated with a more rapid progression and eventual development of high myopia, which increases the risk of retinal detachment, cataracts, glaucoma and other serious conditions.

Children who experience a concussion or eye injury should visit their optometrist immediately for a comprehensive eye and vision exam. Children are more vulnerable to the consequences of concussion and often have longer recovery times and poorer outcomes than adults. One of the most common problems for concussed children is that the child's eyes do not work together when trying to focus on a nearby object. Eye injuries can occur from play, participation in sports, exposure to household chemicals, accidents with tools or desk supplies, or careless use of tobacco, fireworks, or BB or pellet guns.

Excessive exposure to sunlight (especially when reflected off snow) can cause eye damage, particularly in infants and younger children, as can blue light from cellphones, TV, video games and computer screens. Conditions linked to childhood UV exposure include photokeratitis, keratoconjunctivitis, retinal damage and squamous cell carcinoma of the cornea and conjunctiva, as well as age-related conditions such as cataracts and macular degeneration. Children should wear sunglasses and/or clear prescription lenses that block at least 99 percent of UV light, not look directly at the sun and have a comprehensive exam annually.

An annual comprehensive eye exam can not only catch eye problems early on, but they can sometimes be a lifesaver. It proved to be so for an Atlanta girl last year, who at the age of eight experienced excruciating headaches that perplexed her physicians. When her mother took her to an optometrist for her regular comprehensive eye exam, they discovered the cause of her pain. The optometrist found a golf ball-sized tumor pressing on a nerve in her brain. The non-cancerous tumor was removed and the girl has fully recovered.

Children are at risk for a wide range of eye and vision disorders, but annual comprehensive eye examinations conducted by a doctor of optometry can improve detection, diagnosis and early prevention or treatment of eye conditions. Addressing eye and vision conditions early in a child's life will have long-term positive consequences in not only eye health, but also on educational attainment, professional opportunities and quality of life.


Jennifer Poole is Assistant Editor at Washington Parent magazine.