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I Can See Clearly Now

As March is designated Save Your Vision Month, I would like to highlight just one of the many reasons that it is essential for children to have annual physical exams: vision screenings. Poor eyesight can directly affect learning, behavior, and development. Unfortunately, misinformation about eyesight abounds. Take this short quiz to test your own knowledge about children’s vision.

True or False:

Reading in the dark will hurt your eyes.

False. One may feel eyestrain from trying to read in dim light, but it does not actually weaken or damage vision. In the not-too-distant past, our ancestors were sewing fine needlepoint samplers and writing political treatises by candlelight. We are comparatively much better off with our high-tech light bulbs (or at least flashlights at summer camp.) It’s best to use a bedside lamp for reading, but dim lighting is not a threat to eyesight.

Sitting too close to the television or computer can damage eyesight.

False. According to the American Academy of Opthalmology, computer/tv watching does not itself harm the eyes. However, when staring at a screen for long periods of time, the eyes blink less than usual (like they do when reading or performing other close work). This may cause eye dryness, which in turn leads to a feeling of eyestrain or fatigue. So encourage your kids to take frequent breaks viewing electronic screens.

The Kid’s Health website advises that “children have a greater ability to focus up close without strain than do adults. They often develop habits of holding reading material close to their eyes or sitting close to the television. There is no evidence that this damages the eyes, and these habits will usually change as the children grow older. Occasionally, children with nearsightedness (myopia) sit close to the television to enable them to see images more clearly. An ophthalmologist can diagnose this condition which is correctable with glasses.”

Eating carrots will improve your vision.

False. While it’s true that carrots are rich in Vitamin A, which is essential for sight, many other foods also contain Vitamin A. Only a small amount is necessary for vision. A well-balanced diet, with or without carrots, provides all the nutrients necessary for good vision. Excessive doses of Vitamin A, D, or E may even be harmful. In third-world countries where childhood malnourishment is a problem, Vitamin A deficiencies do cause serious vision problems, but for mainstream American kids, carrots in the diet would make only a negligible difference in eye health.

Interestingly, the old adage about carrots improving vision can be traced to a WW2 propaganda campaign meant to stymie German pilots. Read more about that strange story here.

If parents have poor eyesight, their kids will inherit that trait.

Probably True. Unfortunately, this one is often true. If parents need glasses or have developed an eye condition such as cataracts, their offspring are more likely to inherit the same trait. Discuss your family’s visual history with your doctor.

Only boys can be color-blind.

Nearly True. Sorry, fellows! It’s estimated that up to 8% of boys have some degree of color blindness, whereas fewer than 1% of girls do. If you are curious to see how well you and your children perform on color tests, here are some online versions.

Looking straight at the sun will damage your vision.

True. Gazing at the sun not only causes headaches and distorts vision temporarily, but it also may lead to permanent eye damage. Any exposure to sunlight adds to the cumulative effects of ultraviolet radiation on your eyes. UV exposure has been linked to serious eye disorders such as cataracts, cancer, and macular degeneration.

“Until about age 10, the lens of a child’s eye is clear, allowing greater solar penetration and thus greater UVR-induced ocular changes,” explains Adelaide A. Hebert, MD, professor and vice chair of dermatology, University of Houston. After that, the lens starts to become more opaque, providing better protection. Consider these tips about appropriate sunglasses for children, from the Skin Cancer Foundation:

Find glasses that block 99-100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays. Buy only those that indicate the percentage of UVR protection they provide. The more skin covered, the better, so look for large, wraparound styles.

Use playground-proof lenses. Kids run, trip, fall, and bounce off objects at alarming speed. Their sunglasses should match this active lifestyle. Find impact-resistant, scratch-proof lenses that don’t pop out of the frames. Avoid glass lenses, unless recommended by a doctor; plastic is safer. Frames should be bendable but unbreakable. Make sure the glasses fit snugly, close to the face.

A reasonable parental stance is not to be excessively worried about all the “what-ifs” in this life, but to know best practices for setting our kids up for optimal health and safety. Annual physical exams are one of these best practices. If your doctor omits a vision screening component as part of the annual exam, I encourage you to request one. If you have concerns about your child’s vision, you may also inquire of his or her teachers whether anything seems amiss in the classroom. As always, we want to be your partners in student health.