Childhood Glaucoma: Early Detection and Treatment Prevent Vision Loss

Childhood glaucoma, also known as congenital glaucoma, is a rare, inherited eye disease. The disease is characterized by increased ocular pressure that damages the optic nerve and can lead to severe and permanent vision loss. Primary glaucoma, caused by high intraocular pressure, occurs in one out of every 10,000 children born in this country, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation. However, regular eye exams help detect the symptoms of glaucoma early, as prompt treatment can improve the outcome.

What It Is

Congenital glaucoma involves abnormal development of the drainage tissues in the eye, which blocks the drainage of the aqueous humor (clear, watery fluid in the front of the eyeball) from the eye. As the fluid collects, it causes pressure, which can injure the cornea -- the transparent part of the eye that covers the iris and pupil. Damage to the cornea interferes with how the eye focuses. The condition usually occurs in both eyes.

Although glaucoma can't be prevented, lowering eye pressure helps prevent additional vision loss. Treatment won't restore vision that has already been lost, but it can help protect the vision a child has remaining.

Secondary glaucoma isn't necessarily inherited and may be related to other medical conditions. For example, children who have undergone cataract surgery are at high risk for developing glaucoma. Reports show that as many as 25 percent of children develop glaucoma following cataract surgery.

Symptoms of Childhood Glaucoma Include:

  • Blinking

  • Sensitivity to bright artificial light or sunlight

  • Enlarged eyes

  • Clouded cornea

  • Excessive tearing

  • Eye pain and discomfort

  • General irritability and poor appetite, especially in infants

Methods Doctors Use to Treat the Disease:

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  • Topical eye drops and oral medications to increase drainage of fluid from the eye or decrease excess aqueous fluid produced inside the eye. Your child may need more than one medication to control the intraocular pressure.

  • Microsurgery to open or create a drainage canal in the eye to allow fluid to drain out.

  • Laser surgery to make a small opening in the iris of the eye, which allows fluid to flow. Doctors also use laser beams to decrease the production of fluid.

  • Eyeglasses to correct nearsightedness, amblyopia, or strabismus -- vision problems that often develop in children with glaucoma. Nearsightedness makes objects in the distance look blurry and out of focus. If a child has amblyopia, the images they see aren't clear. Strabismus (crossed eyes) can cause amblyopia, or poor vision, when both eyes don't focus on an image the same way.