As a parent, your phone and camera are probably full of hundreds of photos of your child smiling, sleeping, drooling and laughing. Every one of these photos is just a little piece of history, and proof for the future that your child was once tiny and babbling.
But no parent expects that a photo could be part of a child’s medical history, too.
If you’re scrolling through your child’s photos and notice white pupils, it could be a trick in the photo. But it may also be a symptom called leukocoria (white-eye reflex).
What is leukocoria?
Leukocoria occurs when the pupil (the black part of the eye) appears white instead of black. In most photos, your child’s eye should look black or red (when the flash reflects the normal red color of the retina).
Leukocoria can be a sign of many otherwise symptomless conditions, including:
- Cataracts, a defect on the lens of the eye
- Coat’s disease, a problem with the blood vessels in the eye
- Retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer
- Retina detachment
- Retina abnormalities
Only a physician can diagnose the cause of leukocoria.
When should you be worried about white eyes in photos?
David Robert Weakley, Jr., M.D., Division Director of Ophthalmology at Children’s Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, says that the chances of a child having a serious condition associated with leukocoria, even with white-eye reflex in photos, is very small.
“White-eye reflex in photos is rarely a sign of retinoblastoma,” Dr. Weakley says. “Recent news stories have brought white-eye reflex to everyone’s attention, but it is not often caused by a serious condition.”
Dr. Weakley says bad photography angles are the most common causes of white-eye reflex in photos. If a child is looking to the side in a photo, the flash will likely illuminate the sides of the eye, which are white. If a child is looking directly into the camera, the flash will illuminate the back of the eye (retina), which is red. If your child has red-eye and white-eye photos, they may not have any health conditions.
Still, a photo alone is not enough to diagnose a health condition. If your child has had white eyes in photos and you are worried about a health condition, you should always ask your pediatrician.
“You can contact your pediatrician if you notice the white-eye reflex,” Dr. Weakley says. “Because eye exams are non-invasive and very routine, they can give you peace of mind if you are worried.”
Your pediatrician examines your child’s eyes at every appointment. In these quick exams, they can check for signs of cataracts, Coat’s disease and retinoblastoma. These exams can help you relax without stressing out your child.
“While a photo might be a good screening exam by parents, only your pediatrician can look at your child’s eyes and determine if they need to see a specialist,” Dr. Weakley says. “I would encourage parents to talk to their pediatrician before becoming too worried.”