Lazy eye, or amblyopia, is the most common cause of visual impairment in children. It’s called “lazy eye” because one eye is stronger than the other. Over time, the brain relies more on the stronger eye, while vision in the weaker eye gets worse. Learn more about pediatric ophthalmology.

Causes of lazy eye

Amblyopia starts in childhood. Doctors don’t always know what causes amblyopia, but sometimes a different vision problem can lead to this condition. These different vision problems include:

  • Refractive errors (refractive amblyopia): Nearsightedness or farsightedness that’s not corrected early can lead to amblyopia. These errors are easy to fix with glasses or contacts.
  • Strabismus (strabismic amblyopia): In children with strabismus, the eyes don’t line up and one eye might drift up or down.
  • Cataract: This causes cloudiness in the lens of the eye, making vision blurry. Babies and children can develop cataracts.

Children are more at risk if they were born prematurely or were smaller than average at birth. They’re also at more risk if they have a family history of amblyopia, childhood cataracts or other eye conditions.

Symptoms of lazy eye (amblyopia)

Symptoms of amblyopia can be hard to observe. Parents may notice their child is struggling to see clearly. That can produce symptoms such as:

  • Squinting
  • Shutting one eye
  • Tilting the head

Diagnosis of lazy eye

Parents may not know their child has amblyopia until an eye doctor diagnoses it during a normal eye exam. That makes it important for children to have their vision screened between the ages of 3 and 5.

Treatment of lazy eye

If another vision problem is causing amblyopia, the eye doctor will treat that first. They may recommend glasses or contacts for children who are farsighted or nearsighted. Surgery can correct cataracts.

Other treatments include:

  • Wearing an eye patch on the stronger eye. This strengthens the weaker eye. For some children, the eye patch is worn only two hours a day. For others, it should be worn all day.
  • Putting eye drops in the stronger eye. A drug called atropine can temporarily blur near vision, which forces the brain to use the other eye. This method may be easier to use, since young children may pull off their eye patch.

It’s important to treat children with amblyopia early. Those who grow up without treatment may have lifelong vision problems.

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