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Everything you need to know about children's eye tests

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By Lisa Salmon

Increasing numbers of children need glasses, and opticians suspect excessive screen time may be the reason behind the rise.

New UK research has found the number of 13 to 16 year olds needing specs has almost doubled over the past seven years. In 2012, Scrivens Opticians found 20% of young teens required glasses, but the figure increased to 35% last year.

Of those who needed glasses or contact lenses, 66% were short-sighted. Scrivens says the statistics match a global trend that has seen the diagnosis of short-sightedness in children double in just one generation, with the World Health Organisation predicting almost 60 million children worldwide under 17 years old will be short-sighted by 2050.

Scrivens found 13 to 16 year olds typically spend 26 hours a week looking at mobiles and tablets, watching TV and playing video games, and eye experts suspect so much time looking at screens leads to eye strain which can in turn cause blurred vision and short-sightedness.

"More research needs to be done into why myopia, in particular, ispresenting itself in children in higher numbers, especially when it comes to determining if there's a link to screen time," says Scrivens optometrist Sheena Mangat.

"Trying to encourage children away from their tech to playing outside is not only going to be good for their vision but their overall wellbeing too."

Mangat explains that the first eight years of a child's life are critical for eye and vision development, and particular problems can only be corrected if treatment starts at a young age.

"Getting your children's eyes tested should be a priority," she stresses. "As parents, we don't think twice about taking our kids to the GP should they become ill, or the dentist for regular checks, but arguably an annual eye health examination is just as important.

"Many children don't understand what's 'normal' when it comes to their vision, so probably won't know if they're having problems. That's where an eye test will reveal any issues that, in most cases, can be corrected through prescription glasses or contact lenses."

The Association of Optometrists says research shows around 20% of school-aged children have an undiagnosed vision problem. But really there's no excuse for children being undiagnosed, as eye tests are free for the under 16s. Young people aged between 16 and 18 in full-time education are also eligible for a free NHS eye test, and prescription glasses are free for children. It's recommended children have an eye test every year.

"Children's eyes continue to grow until early adulthood, and their vision is changing too," explains Mangat. "Because conditions such as short or long-sightedness can happen gradually, neither children nor parents can see the signs, which is why regular eye checks are so important."

If your child hasn't had an eye test recently, here is everything you need to know.

What are the signs that might suggest a youngster has a vision problem?

Headaches: "The most common symptom we see that triggers a sight test is complaints of regular headaches," says Mangat. "The headaches are caused by eye strain where the eye muscles are being overworked as they strain to focus on objects."

Sitting close to the TV. They may be doing this because they are struggling to see.

Dry eyes: when eyes feel gritty and dry, or like there's something in them.

Tilting head or covering one eye. Doing this can sometimes help children focus on an object.

Rubbing eyes excessively, or squinting or complaining of eye pain.

Holding books close to their face when reading, and difficulty concentrating. "Not only will seeing clearly make reading and writing easier but it will help children's levels of concentration and help them remember what's being taught," says Mangat. "Being able to detect any issues with sight at this crucial stage of development and education can help to ensure your child doesn't fall behind."


What can an eye test detect?

An eye test can identify much more than just whether a child needs glasses, and Mangat says: "Regular sight tests are essential for maintaining healthy eyes - they are the window to your general health. An eye test is so much more than just checking whether your vision needs correcting with glasses or contact lenses."

Conditions that can be identified with an eye test include:

Short-sightedness (myopia): Where distant objects appear blurred, while close objects can be seen clearly.

Long-sightedness (hyperopia): Where you can see distant objects clearly but nearby objects are out of focus.

Astigmatism: Where the transparent layer at the front of the eye (cornea) is not perfectly curved.

Lazy eye (amblyopia): Where the vision in one eye doesn't develop properly.

Colour blindness: Difficulty seeing colours or distinguishing between different colours; this is more common in boys than girls.

Squint (strabismus): Where the eyes look in different directions.

Childhood cataracts: Cloudy patches in the lens of the eye that are present from birth.

General health problems: Health problems that can be detected via the eyes include high blood pressure, tumours, raised cholesterol, diabetes and increased risk of stroke.
(PA)