Taking care of little eyes

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My almost four-year-old son’s eyes are often swollen, red and itchy and get all crusted up when he wakes up in the morning. He will often come from school with eyes so bloodshot and teary you want to rush him to a hospital emergency room. I had seen his paed and another doctor over the same in the past and they told me his was primarily an allergic reaction coupled with an infection probably from all the rubbing.

We got anti-allergy eye drops and an antibiotic ointment and religiously wiped the eyes with saline water. I even got tempted to flush them with breast milk or massage them with tea bags. After too many days on tetracycline and eye drops and persistent cries of “mami macho ina-itch”, I started feeling desperate. Do I go back to the paed? Do I see an ophthalmologist? Do we stop taking milk and wheat and spices to see if things will improve?

So when I heard Mums Village was sponsoring a paediatric ophthalmology seminar at the Gertrude Children’s Hospital I jumped at the opportunity to attend and ask all these questions. I wanted to know what we were doing wrong. I wanted reassurance my son’s eyes weren’t ended for ruin. I wanted to know how to prevent serious eye problems in future. And I wanted someone to tell me what to do to ease the discomfort for the little boy.

I got that reassurance from Dr Omondi Nyong’o, a US-based children’s eye surgeon, who was visiting the hospital and giving the seminar. Clearly some allergen was wreaking havoc in our quarters (he also has eczema) and I learnt we needed a moisturising eye cream for the dry skin around the eyes as well as to continue with the anti-allergy eye drops. Oh, and most eye allergens are environmental rather than ingested, I have been reading.

Besides that I learnt a few tips for parents who seek healthy eyes for their young ones.

Children are born with about 1/10th of the vision they will have as adults and this matures between ages 3-5 although the visual acuity of some 5-year-olds may still be maturing. The size of the eye grows as a child grows.

Many eye problems in children are hard to recognize hence the importance of eye screening, especially before children start school (2-3 years). When vision problems are detected early (before children are 7 years) they are easier to correct without permanent damage to eyesight. So during your next clinic or doctor visit ask your paeditrician to test your child’s eyesight.

Most eye infections clear without permanent eye damage, except for those caused by the herpes virus. Viral infections run their course and clear while bacterial infections could need an antibiotic for around three days till they improve.

When you look into your child’s eyes, the reflection you see shouldn’t be white. This could indicate cataracts or retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer.

Lazy eye refers to a condition when one eye doesn’t develop properly. The stronger eye compensates for this hence the problem can go undetected for long resulting in permanent vision loss as the brain learns to disregard the image from the weak eye. A lazy eye should be treated by age seven, mostly with an eye patch and glasses. The eye patch is put on the strong eye to help the weak one heal. Encourage your child as much as possible to wear the eye patch when prescribed to fasten the healing process.

Being outdoors protects your children’s eyes. Playing and reading indoors is spoiling children’s eyes as the organs have to focus for long periods and in less (and artificial) lighting. This can cause the eyeball to grow larger, causing myopia. Near shortsightedness occurs when the image getting into the eye falls in front of the retina rather than on the retina itself leading to a blurred image for objects far away.  Dr Nyong’o observed that the rate of myopia has increased dramatically in recent years and especially in populations that are tech-oriented, probably due gadget use and lots of indoor time.

He advised that children should be outside at least 20 hours a week, so even if your child is a book worm get him/her out with the book and limit TV time to 30 minutes a day (tough laugh with that!).

Genetics are the main determinant whether you will turn out short sighted and how quickly it will progress but taking care of your child’s eyes to ensure proper formation should help. Key is nutrition, hydration and avoiding eye strain.

As we age we are able to see things that are further better. The opposite is that children see things extremely well up close hence the reason they may want to watch TV with their noses stuck on it. It does not necessarily mean they have poor eyesight. Watching TV up close is not harmful for children’s eyes.

Food that is good for the skin is good for the eyes. Feed your children with a balanced diet and with foods rich in omega 3 for healthy eyes. Fish is particularly good for the eyes.

The Kenyan diet has enough beta carotene without needing to feed your children with extra carrots.

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