Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is an eye disease in some premature babies born before 31 weeks. (A full-term pregnancy is about 38–42 weeks.) It is a problem that affects the tissue at the back of the eye called the retina. The retina senses light and sends signals to the brain so you can see. With ROP, unwanted blood vessels grow on the baby’s retina. These blood vessels can cause serious eye and vision problems later.
ROP may go away on its own as an infant grows. But as the infant grows, they should be seen by an ophthalmologist regularly. Sometimes urgent treatment is needed to prevent blindness. If not treated in time, the child can have severe permanent vision loss, or even go blind.
What Causes Retinopathy of Prematurity?
Blood vessels in the eyes normally finish developing a few weeks before birth. An infant who is born early is exposed to many different things. Medicine, oxygen, bright lights, or temperature changes might affect how an eye’s blood vessels develop.
Here are some of the things doctors think might contribute to ROP:
- Low birth weight (just under 3 pounds or less).
- How early a baby is born. A premature baby born at 28 weeks has a greater risk of having ROP than a premature baby born at 32 weeks.
- Giving the infant extra oxygen after birth.
White babies are more likely to get ROP than babies who are Black. Premature infants are also more likely to get ROP if they have other health problems. These problems include anemia (low levels of iron in the blood), not enough vitamin E, or breathing problems.
Shortly after birth, all premature babies should be checked for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). An ophthalmologist can examine the infant’s eyes while they are in the hospital. However, ROP might not be visible until several weeks after birth. So, premature babies at risk for ROP are usually checked by an ophthalmologist at four to six weeks after birth and again thereafter.
It is important to take your baby to all follow-up appointments with your ophthalmologist. Timely detection and treatment can help prevent permanent vision loss.
How is ROP Treated?
At first, an ophthalmologist may monitor ROP to see if it goes away on its own. If abnormal blood vessels continue to grow, the infant’s eyes must be treated.
The ophthalmologist may treat ROP in one or more of the following ways:
With laser treatment, the ophthalmologist uses a laser to burn away the edge of the retina. With freezing treatment (cryotherapy), the surgeon uses a freezing cold instrument to destroy part of the retina. Both of these treatments target very specific parts of the retina to try to stop abnormal blood vessel growth.
Also anti-VEGF medications are now used to treat ROP. These drugs are injected (given as shots) into the eye to stop unwanted blood vessel growth.
Research is also underway on medications for ROP. These drugs are injected (given as shots) into the eye to stop unwanted blood vessel growth.
As babies with ROP grow, they need to be checked regularly by an ophthalmologist for vision problems. Having ROP can lead to being nearsighted, or having a detached retina, lazy eye or misaligned eyes. It also increases the risk of having glaucoma. These problems may be treated by:
- Wearing eyeglasses
- Taking eye drops
- Putting a patch on one eye
- Having eye surgery