Childhood glaucoma, affecting 1 in 10,000 children, is one of the leading causes of childhood blindness. The condition occurs when a child's optic nerve (the nerve that connects the brain and the eye) is damaged. The disease can be present at birth or diagnosed any time during childhood.

The eyeball is an incredibly complex organ. A fluid called aqueous humour nourishes the eyeball and is secreted by a tissue called the ciliary body. Unlike tears, this fluid leaves the eye via the trabecular meshwork at the back of the eye.

However, if the trabecular meshwork is blocked or obstructed, pressure can build up in the eye because the aqueous fluid – which the eye produces constantly – has nowhere to go. As the fluid increases, so does the pressure on the eye, which pushes on the rear of the eye and damages the optic nerve.

The job of the optic nerve is to carry sight signals to the brain, so when it is damaged, irreparable sight loss occurs. Glaucoma is the medical name for this condition.


How is the eye damaged?

The cause of childhood glaucoma is more often than not a result of raised intraocular pressure (IOP) in the eye. To function properly, the eye has to continuously stay lubricated, so its makes fluids that provide nutrients and oxygen. It also has to drain these fluids, but Glaucoma affected eyes will not be able to drain as effectively, leading to a build up of fluids, which increases pressure in the eye and damages the optic nerve which results in sight loss.

How does glaucoma occur?

In eyes that have trouble draining, glaucoma can occur. In childhood, the most common type is Primary Congenital glaucoma, which is when the drainage channels of the eye do not develop properly. This condition is not usually considered genetic.

What are the symptoms?

If glaucoma is developing in a child aged three years or younger, their eyes may appear larger, and their cornea (the clear part of the eye) will appear larger and more cloudy than normal. Children will also suffer from light sensitivity and watering of the eyes. Children aged four and over might exhibit less pronounced symptoms, but may suffer from swelling of the eyes, short-sightedness and excessive watering.

How serious is childhood glaucoma?

Childhood glaucoma is very serious, causing profound impact on a child's visual development. Some children with glaucoma can have near-normal vision whereas others may loose their eyesight completely, it all depends on how much pressure the eye has been subjected to, and what measures are taken in order to control and relieve that pressure.

What measures can be taken to combat glaucoma?

Early diagnosis is key. The sooner the condition is diagnosed, the more chance a child has of battling the disease effectively. Prompt and appropriate treatment, administered by a specialised eye doctor, will greatly increase the chances of a child retaining their sight. The prescription of glasses can help ease some of the symptoms caused by glaucoma (such as short-sightedness and astigmatism), while an eye patch can help correct 'lazy' eyes, helping the child's vision develop normally. As the child grows, a specialist should be able to diagnose continuous treatment to better manage their vision longer term. However, glaucoma is a lifelong condition, and continual treatment is imperative.

How is glaucoma diagnosed?

An ophthalmologist will be able to tell if a child has glaucoma if they conduct the necessary eye examination. However, for younger children, this can often require a more thorough and invasive examination under general aesthetic. An eye doctor will make their diagnosis based on the following information:

· Increased eye pressure

· Optic nerve damage

· Stretching or clouding of the cornea

· A lengthening of the eye when measured with ultrasound

· Loss of peripheral vision (requires patient input so can sometimes not be ascertained until the child is approx. five years old)

· Increased watering/teary disposition

How common is childhood glaucoma?

In the western world, primary congenital glaucoma has an incidence rate of between 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 20,000 births. The exact ratio is unknown. There are instances of higher ratios in certain countries and certain ethnicities. In around 75% of cases, the condition occurs in both eyes. In half of all cases, children with glaucoma also suffer from another eye problem or systemic disorder.


Moorfields Eye Hospital

Childhood Glaucoma Network

Wills Glaucoma


Raising awareness about childhood glaucoma. Sunrise K' Foundation – a non-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness about childhood glaucoma, one of the leading causes of childhood blindness. Working with Moorfields Eye Charity – the charity that supports London’s acclaimed Moorfields Eye Hospital - and world-renowned glaucoma expert Professor Sir Peng Tee Khaw, the Sunrise K' Foundation's mission is to support research dedicated to finding a cure for this debilitating disease.