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Amblyopia (lazy eye)

3-minute read

Around 1 in every 50 Australian children have ‘lazy eye’, or amblyopia. Early diagnosis and treatment with glasses, contact lenses or eye patches can prevent long-term vision problems.

What is amblyopia?

Amblyopia is a condition where one eye develops abnormally in early life. The weak or ‘lazy’ eye often wanders inwards or outwards. In rare cases, both eyes can be affected. If left untreated, amblyopia can lead to permanent vision loss in the affected eye.

The condition usually occurs in children between birth and age 7 and is the leading cause of decreased vision in one eye in children. Amblyopia is more common in small or premature babies, or children with a family history of the condition.

Causes of amblyopia

Amblyopia develops when one eye receives weaker visual signals in early life. Because the brain receives these fewer visual signals, it starts to ignore input from that eye and so the eyes do not work together properly.

Amblyopia can be caused by anything that blurs a child’s vision or causes crossed eyes. Common causes include:

  • an imbalance in the muscles that position the eyes (known as strabismus)
  • a difference in the sharpness of vision between the eyes (refractive anisometropia)
  • an imperfection on the surface of the eye (astigmatism)
  • any problem with one eye, such as a cloudy area in the lens (cataract).

Symptoms of amblyopia

Signs that your child might have amblyopia include:

  • eyes that don’t seem to work together
  • an eye that wanders inwards or outwards
  • squinting or shutting one eye
  • head tilting
  • poor depth perception.

See a doctor if you notice your baby’s eye wandering any time after the first few weeks following birth. It is also a good idea to have your child’s eyes tested before they start school.

Diagnosing amblyopia

Amblyopia is diagnosed using an eye test given by a doctor, community nurse, optometrist or ophthalmologist.

Treating amblyopia

The earlier treatment starts, the better the outcome. This is because it is important to correct amblyopia while the connections between the eyes and the brain are forming.

The type of treatment will depend on the cause of amblyopia and whether it is affecting your child’s vision. Some options include:

  • glasses or contact lenses to correct conditions such as near-sightedness, far-sightedness and astigmatism
  • an eye patch over the stronger eye to stimulate the weaker eye
  • a special filter to blur the vision of the stronger eye and stimulate the weaker eye
  • eye drops to blur the vision of the stronger eye
  • surgery if your child’s eyes are wandering, or to correct cataracts or droopy eyelids.

The treatment usually works within several weeks or months, although it can continue for up to 2 years.

In 25 per cent of cases, amblyopia can return. It’s therefore important to continue to monitor your child’s eyes after the treatment stops.

Last reviewed: September 2017

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