August is Children’s Eye Health Month, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
Now that students are back in school, vision problems that weren’t noticeable over the summer can become apparent in the classroom, with squinting to see the board being one of the most obvious signs of vision impairment.
Eye health is about more than vision screenings. Losing eye cells is like losing arms or legs: they don’t grow back and regaining lost vision is impossible, said Dr. Antonio Turner, optometrist and co-owner of Acuity Eyecare and Eyewear.
Developing healthy habits at a young age is the best way to maintain eye health, experts said.
Undergo routine checkups
Children should undergo eye examinations every 12 months to check for vision impairment and disease. According to Turner, children, especially those in third and fourth grade, often have difficulty recognizing when they need glasses because they assume everyone sees as they do. Frequent eye exams are the best way to discover if children need glasses. Giving glasses to children who don’t realize they need them and seeing their world become more detailed is one of Turner’s favorite parts of his job.
“It reminds me of myself,” Turner said. “I was that child in third grade. … [Glasses] turned my world upside down, so I know exactly what these nearsighted children are going through, and it brings a smile to my face whenever I see it.”
Be careful of foreign objects
Dr. Rudy Yung, professor of ophthalmology at the IU School of Medicine and chief of ophthalmology at Eskenazi Health, said most of his patients with eye injuries are children, not adults. He said toddlers are particularly vulnerable because they can accidently stick objects into their eyes or puncture their eye during a fall. Older children can also injure themselves with projectile-based toys such as BB guns. Yung advises parents to be vigilant about the items their children hold and how they’re holding them.
“It can be anything sharp, even a pencil or pen,” Yung said. “We’ve seen that happen. Even kids using a stick to dig in a sandbox can be an issue. … Don’t just think only knives can cause a cut to an eye.”
One of the most common questions Turner hears about children’s eye health is, “What is the right age to start contacts?” He prescribes contacts for patients as young as 7, but Turner said the right age varies from child to child. Turner said contacts are a big responsibility because children must keep their hands clean and never lose the lenses, so he needs to know children are mature enough and excited for the commitment. Each time Turner fits children for contacts, he asks the patient if they want contacts. If the child doesn’t want them, Turner urges parents not to pursue contacts.
“We can train and teach any age, but we want to make sure the patient is ready, and it’s not just that the parent wants them to wear contact lenses,” Turner said.
Be wary of screen time
Yung said the science of how monitors impact eye health is still new, and there’s no medical consensus on to what degree screen time impacts the eyes. However, most optometrists suggest avoiding looking at TVs and smart devices for a few hours at a time because accommodative dysfunction could occur. Accommodative dysfunction is a condition where the eyes become too used to focusing on one distance and have trouble adjusting on points outside that distance. It causes blurry vision, discomfort and fatigued eyes.
Turner said he frequently sees accommodative dysfunction in young patients because of technology. While staring at any single point for too long can cause accommodative dysfunction, Turner believes high definition screens are more likely to cause the condition than other objects because they emit invisible blue light that can cause eye fatigue, strain and deterioration of the retina.
“I do see a fair amount of my young patients, I would say high 90 percentile, have a significant amount of screen time that is creating this accommodative dysfunction we’re seeing,” Turner said.
To prevent accommodative dysfunction, Turner suggests implementing the 20-20 rule: after 20 minutes of looking at a screen take 20 seconds to look at something else. People can also limit the amount of harmful light reaching their eyes by keeping screen brightness at a maximum of 75% or wearing blue filter glasses that block harmful blue light. Turner said parents should limit activities such as television, video games and social media to an hour on weeknights and three hours on weekends.
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.