Childhood glaucoma — also referred to as congenital glaucoma, pediatric, or infantile glaucoma — occurs in babies and young children. It is usually diagnosed within the first year of life.
This is a rare condition that may be inherited, caused by incorrect development of the eye’s drainage system before birth. This leads to increased intraocular pressure, which in turn damages the optic nerve.
Symptoms of childhood glaucoma include enlarged eyes, cloudiness of the cornea, and photosensitivity (sensitivity to light).
- “Childhood Glaucoma” is a free reference guide for parents and professionals involved in the care of children with glaucoma — Download an e-booklet (PDF).
How is Childhood Glaucoma Treated?
In an uncomplicated case, surgery can often correct such structural defects. Both medication and surgery are required in some cases.
Medical treatments may involve the use of topical eye drops and oral medications. These treatments help to either increase the exit of fluid from the eye or decrease the production of fluid inside the eye. Each results in lower eye pressure.
There are two main types of surgical treatments: filtering surgery and laser surgery. Filtering surgery (also known as micro surgery) involves the use of small surgical tools to create a drainage canal in the eye. In contrast, laser surgery uses a small but powerful beam of light to make a small opening in the eye tissue.
What to Expect
Thousands of children with glaucoma can live full lives. This is the ultimate goal of glaucoma management. Although lost vision cannot be restored, it is possible to optimize each child’s remaining vision. Equally important is to encourage your child’s independence and participation in his or her own self-care.
Symptoms of childhood glaucoma vary. In some cases, children will show no symptoms. Usually, there will be a gradual onset of glaucoma-related problems.
Signs and symptoms can include:
- light sensitivity (photophobia)
- corneal opacification (hazy gray cornea)
- enlarged eye and cornea
- epiphora (overflow of tears)
- vision loss
A cloudy cornea is the earliest and most common sign of childhood glaucoma. The healthy cornea is transparent. The loss of this transparency is caused by edema, or swelling of tissue from excess fluid. This occurs in the corneal epithelium (outermost layer of the cornea) and in the corneal stroma (middle layer of the corneal tissue). Careful inspection of the cornea may also reveal defects in its inner layer, which is further proof of a raised eye pressure (IOP).
In most cases of glaucoma affecting children under three years of age, the cornea and eye enlarges. Review of early photographs of your child may reveal the presence of glaucoma months before the diagnosis was actually made.
In addition to eye problems, secondary systemic (body) symptoms may occur. These secondary symptoms are especially common with acute glaucoma. Examples include irritability, loss of appetite, and vomiting. These symptoms may be misunderstood before the glaucoma is recognized. Young children with glaucoma are often unhappy, fussy, and poor eaters.
A slow chronic increase in eye pressure is probably not painful. In contrast, there is discomfort and pain when the eye pressure increases rapidly during an acute onset or with the rapid return of glaucoma following unsuccessful glaucoma surgery. Lowering high eye pressure relieves these painful symptoms quickly.
Prevalence of Childhood Glaucoma
- Childhood glaucoma is relatively rare. Congenital glaucoma is present at birth. Infantile glaucoma develops between the ages of 1-24 months. Primary congenital / primary infantile glaucoma occurs in the general population at a rate of approximately 1 in 10,000 births.
(Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology)
- Childhood glaucoma (from birth to 18 years of age) affects 1 in 5,000 children.
(Source: Bascom Palmer Eye Institute)
- About 5 in 100,000 children are born with glaucoma, or develop it in childhood.
(Source: Glaucoma UK)
- Primary congenital glaucoma (PCG) affects about one in every 10,000 infants.
Free 24-page Booklet: Childhood Glaucoma
The Childhood Glaucoma booklet includes a comprehensive introduction to childhood glaucoma including how the eye works, different types of childhood glaucoma, genetics of the disease and how to recognize it in children, signs and symptoms, how it’s diagnosed, what happens in an office examination, how it is treated, living with childhood glaucoma, managing vision problems, educational issues, impact on the family, and more.
Managing Childhood Glaucoma is a team effort. Parents, family members, and health professionals are important members of the team involved in the care of a child with glaucoma. Successful management depends on the efforts of everyone to support the child during each phase of treatment and care. There are many challenges in facing a chronic disease like glaucoma. We hope this booklet will prove to be an additional resource to help your family with some of these challenges.
“Childhood Glaucoma” is a free reference guide for parents and professionals involved in the care of children with glaucoma — Download an e-booklet (PDF).
Health care providers can order bulk quantities of the printed booklet (80 booklets per box) from the GRF Webstore.
Video: Congenital Glaucoma
Video Transcript: Juvenile glaucoma, also referred to as congenital glaucoma, occurs in babies and young children, and is usually diagnosed within the first year of life. Juvenile glaucoma is a rare condition caused by incorrect development of the eye’s drainage system before birth. This leads to increased intraocular pressure, which can damage the optic nerve and lead to blindness. Treatment of Juvenile glaucoma depends on the underlying cause, but usually includes medications such as eye drops, laser surgery, or conventional surgery. Early detection, through regular and complete eye exams, is the key to protecting vision from damage caused by glaucoma.
Last reviewed and updated on August 31, 2023