Childhood cataracts: causes, symptoms and treatment

Cataracts are one of the leading causes of visual impairment and blindness in children. Find out about the causes and common symptoms of cataracts, and learn how they can be treated.

Khadijah from Nigeria had a cataract in one eye, causing her mother to fear she'd lose her sight in that eye. © Sightsavers/Andrew Esiebo

What are child cataracts?

While cataracts mainly occur in older adults, babies and children can be born with them or develop them. A cataract forms when proteins in the eye create cloudy patches on the lens. When this happens, a child’s vision can be misty and blurry.

Congenital cataracts are present from birth and can affect one or both of a child’s eyes. When a cataract forms in one eye, it’s called a unilateral cataract. If they occur in both eyes, they’re called bilateral cataracts. It is vital that children with both types are assessed and treated quickly to prevent permanent vision loss.

Older children can also develop cataracts. Other types of cataracts that can affect children include:

  • Secondary cataracts: these form as a result of an infection, metabolic disease or condition that affects the front part of the eye. They can also be caused by conditions like Down syndrome
  • Trauma-related cataracts: an injury to the eye as a result of an impact or a sharp penetration
Nine-year-old Archana stands in the doorway of her home in Odisha, India. Her expression is forlorn.

How do cataracts affect vision?

What does the world look like when you have cataracts? Our simulator will give you an idea.

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What causes child cataracts?

Not all cataracts in babies and children have a known cause. Most unilateral cataracts are not related to illness or injury, while bilateral cataracts are more likely to be inherited or caused by an illness.

Risk factors for childhood cataracts include:

  • Genetics: if a parent or close family member had cataracts in childhood, a baby is more likely to be born with them or develop them in childhood
  • Certain illnesses or infection in utero: while rare, maternal illness can affect a baby’s development in the womb. Rubella is the most common cause of congenital cataracts.
  • Infant illness: if a baby has a medical condition or illness that affects how their body works
  • Injury or trauma: a sharp or dull impact to the eye can damage the lens and cause a cataract to form

What are the symptoms of child cataracts?

If a baby has cataracts, you might see changes to the colour of their pupils or clouding on the eye’s lens. You may also notice that they struggle to locate visual stimuli and have difficulty focusing when holding your gaze.

Older children who can talk may tell you their vision is blurred, cloudy or distorted. You may notice that they struggle to perform activities, bump into things or find it difficult to read and learn at school.

Common signs of cataracts include:

  • Changes to the colour of the pupil – it may look white
  • Blurred, dim or misty vision
  • Difficulty seeing in low light or at night
  • Sensitivity to light: lights look too bright or glaring
  • Colours look faded or muted
  • Seeing a ‘halo’ around bright lights
  • Everything looks more ‘washed out’

Watch the video to find out what life was like for Archana before her cataract operation.

What does the world look like to a child with cataracts?

184,000 children worldwide are thought to be blind from cataracts

1 hour is all it takes to treat a child’s cataracts via surgery

£94 can pay for a cataract operation that saves a child’s sight

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How are child cataracts diagnosed and treated?

It’s important for a child with suspected cataracts to get their eyes checked because without early intervention cataracts can lead to lazy eye or permanent blindness. If a child develops lazy eye due to cataracts, it’s very difficult to correct the condition after eight years old, because the eye has already finished developing by that age.

When a child has cataracts, their eyes will send blurred images to the brain that it can’t process. If this happens over a long period of time from birth, the brain will eventually ignore all visual information and the child will lose their sight. Children who develop cataracts after the age of one are more likely to recover their sight if they previously had good vision.


Baby cataracts are often diagnosed soon after birth. An eye doctor will use eye drops to increase the size of the child’s pupils so they can check the lens closely using a bright light. If treatment is needed, they will usually perform a cataract operation as soon as possible.

An eye surgeon operates on a patient. Another member of clinical staff assists them.

Cataract surgery

An operation to treat cataracts can take as little as 20 minutes, and a person’s vision can start to return a few hours after surgery.

About cataract surgery

What happens during child cataract surgery?

Removing the lens

Removing the clouded lens is the only way to restore a child’s eyesight and prevent permanent vision loss. The operation is carried out under general anaesthetic and takes about an hour.

A close-up of the plastic lens that's implanted into the eye during a cataract operation.

Replacement lens

During the procedure, the cataract is removed and replaced with an artificial lens. If the child is very young, it will usually be replaced with contact lenses or glasses until they are older.

Recovery after surgery

If a child has cataracts in both eyes, they will have two operations, giving them time to recover in between. A child’s vision usually starts to return a couple of hours after surgery.

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Shahadeb post surgery, can see clearly and looks out of the window.

How Sightsavers is helping to treat cataracts in children

Shahadeb post surgery, can see clearly and looks out of the window.
Cataracts are entirely treatable, but many children and families in low and middle income countries don’t have access to the medical care they need to help them see again.

We work in more than 30 countries to carry out eye screenings and enable children like Khadijah and Shahadeb to be treated, so their sight can be saved and they’re able to get an education, enjoy life and thrive.

Learn how we’ve helped a child with cataracts

Read Souleymane’s story