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Is Eye Dilation Necessary? What to Know Before Your Child’s Eye Exam

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Taking your child for eye exams is vital to ensuring that they grow up with healthy eyes and vision. However, you might have questions about some of the things your eye doctor does when conducting your child’s first exam. In particular, you may be wondering whether they need to dilate your child’s eyes — and what effects doing so might have.

We’ve provided eye exams for children (as well as adult eye exams) for years at our practice, so we’re in an excellent position to answer your questions. Read on and find out whether dilating your child’s eyes is really necessary during their visit to an optometrist.

Black and white close-up of child with one dilated eye

What Is Eye Dilation (and What Does it Accomplish)?

Sometimes, your eye doctor needs to drop or spray a small amount of liquid into your eyes during an eye exam. The experience isn’t always pleasant, but it helps your optometrist check for various diseases and conditions.

The liquid your eye doctor introduces to your eyes will do one of two things. It will either:

  • Contract the muscles that cause your pupil to enlarge, or
  • Relax the muscles that make the pupil constrict

In either case, the pupil will become enlarged. When the pupil is larger (dilated), your eye doctor will have an easier time diagnosing the following issues:

  • Detached retinas
  • Tumors in the eye
  • Glaucoma
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Cataracts
  • Age-related macular degeneration
Eye dropper administering eye drops to baby

Why Do Children Need Eye Dilation?

Most of the problems listed above either do not occur or are extremely rare in children, which leads some parents to believe that their children do not need dilated eye exams. However, dilating the eyes can also help your eye doctor treat conditions such as amblyopia (lazy eye) or inflammation — which are much more common in children.

Amblyopia is the leading cause of childhood vision loss in individual eyes (or monocular vision loss). It can lead to permanent vision loss in nearly 3% of adults. Diagnosing amblyopia before age 5 is one of the best ways to prevent vision loss later in life, and dilating eye drops are one of the least invasive diagnostic methods available.

Side Effects of Dilation

Fortunately, there are very few risks involved with dilating your child’s eyes. The most significant inconvenience children experience is that their eyes remain dilated for several hours after their exam. Their eyes will stay dilated for anywhere from 4 to 24 hours.

While your child’s eyes are dilated, they will likely experience the following:

  • Difficulty reading
  • Difficulty focusing on devices with screens or other nearby objects
  • Increased sensitivity to light

It is also possible for children to have allergic reactions to dilation eye drops, but these are rare, and their symptoms are generally mild. Possible symptoms of an allergic reaction to dilation drops include:

  • Redness of the skin around the eyes
  • Swelling in the eye area
  • Dry mouth or flushing in the facial region (during more severe allergic reactions)

What to Know Before Your Child’s First Eye Exam

We recommend taking your child for their first eye exam when they are six months old. During the exam, your child’s optometrist will look for visual problems that commonly manifest during early childhood.

Amblyopia is one such condition — which is why your eye doctor may recommend the use of dilation eye drops. Optometrists also typically look for signs of strabismus, which occurs when the eyes are misaligned (or “crossed”).

Vision development occurs quickly during childhood, so rapidly identifying and responding to problems is essential. Suppose your child’s optometrist discovers signs of amblyopia or strabismus. In that case, it’s critical to follow their recommendations and deal with the problem before it has a chance to impair your child’s vision more significantly.

Don’t Be Afraid of Having Your Child’s Eyes Dilated

Dilating the eyes is necessary for learning about a person’s vision — even when that person is very young. Eye doctors discover different things by dilating a person’s eyes at different ages, so if your optometrist wants to dilate your child’s eyes, it’s best to let them do it. Remember to start taking your child for regular eye exams early on in life, and always make sure to follow your optometrist’s recommendations to help them grow up with healthy vision.

Written by Dr. Asim Prasad

Dr. Asim Prasad is a native Calgarian who earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Vision Science and Doctor of Optometry degree from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 2008. Before becoming an optometrist, Dr. Prasad earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Alberta. After working in the environmental science industry for a short time, Dr. Prasad decided to pursue his true passion: optometry.
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