You probably think of cataracts as something that only affects the vision of older adults. But cataracts can actually develop at any age. Cataracts in young adults and children, known as early onset cataracts, are less common but still affect thousands each year. If you or your child starts experiencing vision changes, it could be caused by cataracts even if you’re decades away from entering your golden years.
So what exactly causes cataracts to form in younger eyes? How can you identify cataract symptoms and seek treatment before vision loss occurs? This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about cataracts in young adults – from risk factors and warning signs to diagnosis and treatments. Arm yourself with information so you can take proactive steps to protect your vision.
What Causes Cataracts to Develop in Younger Adults?
A cataract forms when the clear lens inside your eye becomes cloudy and obstructed. As light passes through the lens, it becomes difficult for the retina to produce a sharp, vivid image. Age-related changes in lens proteins are the most common reason cataracts develop, but there are a number of other factors that can cause cataracts to form in younger adults and children.
Medical Conditions Play a Role
Several common medical conditions are associated with early onset cataracts. Uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, and eczema have all been linked to cataract development in younger individuals. When diabetes goes untreated, excess sugar in the bloodstream can affect the lens proteins. High blood pressure also places stress on the delicate eye structures. And eczema leads to eye rubbing, which may physically damage the lens over time. If you have any of these chronic conditions, be especially vigilant about vision changes and discuss your cataract risk with an eye doctor.
Long-Term Medication Use
Using steroid treatments for extended periods of time has also been tied to cataract formation. Oral, inhaled, or topical steroids like prednisone are sometimes prescribed to reduce inflammation for conditions like asthma, COPD, and rheumatoid arthritis. But they come with side effects like accelerated cataract development. Work with your prescribing doctor to keep your dosage as low as possible.
Serious Eye Injuries
Penetrating injuries, blunt force trauma, chemical burns, and other significant insults to the eye all elevate the risk of cataracts. The impact can physically damage the lens, kickstarting the cataract formation process. Accidents happen, but always seek emergency care for any blow to the eye or foreign object stuck in the eye. The sooner the trauma is treated, the lower your cataract risk.
Hereditary and Congenital Factors
Genetics play a role in many early onset cataracts. Around 1 in 3 children born with cataracts inherit it from a parent. Other genetic disorders like galactosemia also predispose individuals to cataracts from birth. Plus, if the mother contracts an infection like rubella during pregnancy, it can interfere with the development of the fetal eye and lead to congenital cataracts. Your family history holds important clues about potential vision issues.
A few more risk factors are associated with early cataracts. Exposure to radiation from cancer treatments can damage the lens over time. Smoking cigarettes floods the eye with toxic chemicals. And UV rays from sunlight have an abrasive, aging effect on the lens proteins. Protect your eyes from these harmful exposures whenever possible.
How to Identify When Cataracts Are Affecting Your Vision
In the early stages, cataracts cause no pain or discomfort. But over time, you may start to experience vision changes like:
- Blurry, cloudy areas in your field of vision
- Increased glare and halos around lights at night
- Duller, faded colors
- The feeling that everything is in a fog or your sunglasses are still on
- Trouble reading small print unless you have brighter light
As the cataract grows denser, you may also notice:
- A white, grayish, or yellowish discoloration in the pupil when you look closely in the mirror
- Double vision in one eye
- Very bright colors like reds looking muddy, brownish, or muted
Children will exhibit slightly different vision changes with pediatric cataracts:
- Eyes turning inward or outward (strabismus)
- Lazy eye (amblyopia)
- Eyes that don’t focus or track together
- Clumsiness or delayed motor skills
Don’t dismiss subtle vision changes as just getting older or not needing reading glasses yet. Blurry or dim vision, especially in just one eye, always warrants an urgent eye exam.
How Eye Doctors Diagnose Cataracts
Schedule an appointment with your ophthalmologist or optometrist if cataracts are suspected. They will run a series of tests to evaluate your vision and pinpoint any lens cloudiness.
- Visual acuity – How clearly can you read standard letters on a chart? Do you have 20/20 vision or is it more blurry?
- Eye pressure – High pressure inside the eye (glaucoma) can accompany cataracts.
- Eye dilation – Drops will dilate the pupil so your doctor can examine the lens with special magnifying tools.
- Slit lamp exam – A slit lamp shines a very bright beam into your eye while a microscope analyzes the lens in fine detail.
- Retinal imaging – Photographs of the retina help detect any changes.
Your doctor will also ask about any family history of childhood or early onset cataracts. Be prepared to share any relevant details about your medical history and medication use too. These clues help identify risk factors and determine next steps.
Options for Treating Cataracts at a Young Age
If you are diagnosed with cataracts in one or both eyes, don’t panic. Catching it early gives you plenty of time to slow further progression. Ophthalmologists have several effective treatment options:
Medications and Lifestyle Changes
In mild cases, your doctor may recommend eye drops or oral medications that help make the lens proteins less rigid and dense. This could temporarily improve some vision symptoms. They may also advise lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, controlling diabetes or blood pressure, and wearing sunglasses to filter UV rays. These conservative steps aim to delay cataract surgery as long as possible.
If the cataract interferes with your daily activities, the most definitive treatment is cataract surgery. A skilled ophthalmologist uses lasers and advanced microsurgical techniques to break up and remove the cloudy lens material. Then an artificial intraocular lens is inserted to replace it with a pristine, clear lens. The minimally invasive procedure takes less than an hour with little downtime. Over 90% of patients report significantly better vision after surgery.
Pediatric cataracts require urgent surgery, since delaying too long can lead to permanent vision impairment. Ophthalmologists tailor the procedure for children and follow up closely to ensure their eyes develop properly. With early treatment, infants have excellent potential for regaining normal sight.
Don’t Lose Hope – Solutions Exist!
Being diagnosed with cataracts at a younger age can be scary. But try to stay positive! Identifying them early before significant vision loss occurs gives you so many more options. With a combination of vigilant eye care, lifestyle changes, and advanced cataract surgery when needed, most young adults and children can get back to 20/20 vision.
Protect the precious gift of eyesight throughout your life with these proactive steps:
- Wear sunglasses and hats to filter UV exposure
- Quit smoking to limit chemical irritation
- Monitor diabetes and blood pressure diligently
- Use eye protection when playing sports or doing risky work
And never take your eye health for granted at any age. Schedule regular eye exams to catch issues like cataracts as soon as the first symptoms arise. Early detection and treatment can help safeguard your vision for decades to come.
Cataracts are sneaky – they can develop gradually at any age, not just in your golden years. But arm yourself with knowledge about causes, symptoms, and treatment options for cataracts in young adults and children. Catching early changes quickly is key to preventing vision loss. With a combination of healthy habits, frequent eye checkups, and advanced cataract procedures when needed, you can keep your world looking crisp, clear and bright!