You might think, “Oh, it’s just genetics. If my kid needs glasses, he or she will just need glasses.”
Turns out, that’s not quite accurate.
“While there are dominant forms of nearsightedness, for example, it’s not just a straight dominant inheritance pattern,” said Dr. Stephanie Goei, a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.
In other words, our environment actually can make a difference in how healthy our children’s eyes are.
Here Comes the Sun
When we think about protecting ourselves from the elements, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the sun.
Just like our skin, our eyes can experience changes and damage from the sun, too. “General damage from the sun’s ultraviolet light is cumulative, so you want to limit sun exposure from early childhood,” said Goei.
As much as possible, when outside on sunny days, babies and children should wear sunglasses that protect from both ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB). Labels can be misleading, so “it’s worthwhile to get good-quality sunglasses,” said Goei—a good price range is $12 to $25.
Babies and children should also wear a wide-brimmed hat or a baseball cap. Not going to happen, you say? Just like brushing teeth or washing hands, “The more you do it, the more you get accustomed to it,” said Goei, who started putting her children in hats and sunglasses while outdoors from the very first time she took them outside.
Blowing in the Wind
Wind can become an issue too, especially if children are playing in sandboxes or in areas with loose dirt or other debris. Heavy pollen, like what we experience here in Augusta every spring, can also sting the eyes, whether or not your child has allergies.
Sunglasses can offer some protection from wind. But on very windy days, it’s a good idea to choose something other than the sandbox or choose to play indoors. That helps stop dirt and debris from getting into your child’s eyes, which keeps your child from rubbing all of that into their eyes.
If your child does have allergies, all that rubbing—which often happens at night, during sleep—can be a problem. “You don’t want your child to constantly rub their eyes, because there can be long-term effects,” said Goei. And at the very least, constant eye rubbing is a sure sign that your child’s eyes are uncomfortable.
Your first line of defense, said Goei, is to clean your child as soon as he or she gets into the house. Change clothes, and take a bath or shower. Definitely keep windows closed to stop pollen from coming into the house. And keep pets clean too, since they might bring pollen in on their fur. “You want to keep a safe zone for your allergic child to stop exposure or minimize exposure,” she said. “There are also times for children who are extremely allergic where you want to keep them indoors.”
Over-the-counter antihistamines are also very effective at managing allergies, and one eye drop, Patanol, that Goei uses is now available over the counter to treat itching, burning, redness, watering and other eye symptoms caused by allergies.
If the allergies are really severe, it’s time to talk to your pediatrician, who can refer your child to a pediatric allergist.
As parents, we do want our children to be active and spend as much time outdoors as they can. “They can still do that and get all the benefits of playing outdoors in the sunshine,” said Goei, “but without causing long-term damage to their eyes.”