It was a mystery to mom: her 10 year-old, autistic boy suddenly was rubbing his eyes and crying. When she pried his hands away, she saw that his eyes were red with swollen lids, and he obviously hurt. Was it allergies? Did pink eye come on this fast?
She checked him over to see if he had gotten into anything, felt a lump in his pocket, and pulled out the pepper spray canister that she kept in her purse! Mystery solved. She ran his eyes and face under cold water and brought him in.
Eye illnesses and injuries often freak people out. Sight is important, and many fear losing it. Eyeballs themselves are kinda freaky. No haunted house is without missing eyeballs, misshapen eyeballs, or eyeballs in a bowl. Eyes can be mysterious- movies and TV enhance drama by highlighting or shading an actor’s eyes. Emotional response to eye problems makes for a lot of Emergency Department visits.
The most common eye problem in the ED isn’t an emergency: conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis is what many call “pink eye,” where the eye is red, watery, and itchy. Sometimes the eyes water clear, sometimes the discharge is green and gooey.
Most conjunctivitis is from infection, usually viral. Like most viruses, pink eye lasts only a few days and goes away on it’s own without antibiotics. Contrary to popular belief, pink eye is not terribly contagious, and the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t consider it a reason to skip school or daycare. Pink eye can also be from allergies to pollen or pet hair exposure. This “allergic conjunctivitis” lasts as long as the child is exposed, and tends to stay watery and not get gooey and discolored.
Swelling around the eye also worries parents. Usually baby wakes up with one eyelid dramatically swollen, and is rushed to the ER. Baby seems fine, cooing away and not sick, but it LOOKS bad! These are usually due to insect bites, and swelling around the eye is more dramatic than bites to other areas because of loose skin and abundant blood supply there.
In the iconic movie “A Christmas Story,” 9 year-old Ralphie Parker yearns for a Red Ryder BB gun. A running gag is Ralphie’s subtle and not-so-subtle begging to his parents and Santa for the gun. He is invariably turned down with the line, “You’ll put your eye out!”
At the end (spoiler alert!), Ralphie gets his BB gun and promptly shoots himself in the eye, or actually, shoots his glasses off. Fortunately for Ralphie, his glasses saved his eye. Unfortunately, in real life BB guns can “put your eye out.” I’ve seen too many BB injuries to eyes and faces of kids, and too many real gunshot wounds there too. Despite advances in eye surgery, eyesight and/or the eye itself are often lost.
Therefore, preventing eye injuries is the best way to preserve vision. If your child is doing something with potential injury, have them wear safety glasses. Basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar turned geeky protective glasses into cool. During a college game he got his cornea (the clear dome in front of your iris and pupil) scratched. Corneal abrasions are intensely painful, and after that he wore glasses. Corneal abrasions can come from flying particles while woodworking, weed-eating, shooting, and from many sports.
Eye strain is another form of eye injury. In my childhood, parents warned that watching too much TV would “strain” our eyes. Not knowing what that meant, we ignored them. It turns out eyestrain is real and much more prevalent today, with smaller screens that have more detail than old TVs, and kids spending way more time looking at them. Growing up we had one TV at home, and you could tell who the rich kids were because they had two! Now most kids have a screen in their pocket, or more likely in their faces.
Symptoms of eyestrain are watery and itchy eyes, blurry vision, headaches, and light sensitivity. Eyestrain can be reduced by keeping screens clean, enlarging text, and rest from screen time. Put off getting your child a phone. Get their phone when they NEED it, not because they want it for entertainment.
Like with the Red Ryder BB gun, you don’t want them to put their eyes out!