Itching eyes in children: Causes and treatments

Seven-year-old Lara had been suffering from severe itching of the eyes for about four years. It seemed it was getting worse. There were days Lara would wake up in the morning screaming because her lids were stuck together and she could not open her eyes. She had been to many hospitals and eye clinics and as a last resort, her mother approached an older friend of hers, Mama Lekan.

Mama Lekan related her own experience to Mama Lara. She told her that her son, Lekan had a similar problem when he was about Lara’s age. She too had tried many things, but the itching kept on coming off and on. It only disappeared when Lekan was about 18 years old. Mama Lekan advised her friend to take Lara to the eye doctor (ophthalmologist).

Somehow, she got to know about the United for Vision Club and decided she could go to their meeting for free consultation. Agitated and with anxiety boldly written on her face, she was the first to arrive at our Wednesday afternoon meeting. I, therefore, asked her to state her mission before we commenced our discussion for the day.

Unknown to me, there were two other young mothers, Funmi and Golu who had come to ask questions about itching of the eyes. They had children who had similar problems. Funmi said she used to remove long, stringy, worm like threads from the eyes of her four-year-old son who suffered from severe itching.

Golu was worried about her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, who was finding it difficult to see the whiteboard clearly in class. She had found an eye drop prescribed by a colleague at work very useful. Hannah had been free from all symptoms since she started using the eye drops.

Her eyes, previously severely discoloured, were now white and Golu had wondered why the eye doctors she had seen had withheld such a wonderful drug from her. Now she was worried that the increasing deterioration of Hannah’s vision might have something to do with this medicine.

These questions and comments were sufficiently important for me to decide to abandon our original topic in favour of a talk on “Itching in Childhood – Causes and Treatment.”

Itching of the eyes is very common in children. The symptoms are basically as described by the mothers above. Sometimes the children rub their eyes so much that they become beefy red leading to persistent brownish discolouration of the eyes.

The more the intensity of the rubbing, the more the discolouration of the eyeballs. Parents find this most distressing because relatives and friends kept asking them what they were doing about the problem and recommending all types of solutions.

The commonest cause of itching eyes in childhood is allergy. Allergy is the body’s reaction to unrecognised substances (foreign bodies), in food or in the environment. The body’s defences attack the perceived enemies and this triggers a chain of events in the body.

Chemicals are released into the tissues causing the itching. Usually people who exhibit this type of ocular allergy may also have (or in their families) other types of allergy such as asthma or hay fever (allergic rhinitis).

We can tackle the problem in two ways. First we can attempt to know the agents causing the allergy and withdraw them from the patient. This would be the ideal treatment but it is very difficult to identify all the agents and even when identified often impossible to extricate the patient from them.

The second alternative relates to dealing with the chemicals causing the itching. We use three categories of medicines; one type to prevent the release; another to modify the already released chemicals and prevent them from causing itching; and the third, the king of drugs, works at all levels and more. It is the most effective, the most efficient and cheapest of all the medicines. Unfortunately, it is also extremely dangerous and can cause blindness.

This drug is what was prescribed for Hannah by her mother’s friend. Could this be the cause of the increasing deterioration of Hannah’s vision?

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