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When Is It Too Late To Treat Lazy Eye?

While it’s best to fix amblyopia during childhood, it can also be addressed as an adult

Adult receiving eye drops from a healthcare provider

If you had a lazy eye as a child, there’s a good chance it was treated by wearing eyeglasses or an eye patch.

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But for some adults, they still experience blurry vision in one eye. Known as amblyopia, they struggle to see clearly out of both eyes, with one eye stronger than the other.

So, when is it too late to treat a lazy eye?

While you may think you can’t treat amblyopia as an adult and that you’re destined to have blurry vision your entire life, ophthalmologist Kristen Borriello, OD, says not to give up hope. Treatment options for amblyopia are available — even if you don’t use them until later in life.

Dr. Borriello explains what it means to have amblyopia and how to treat a lazy eye in adults.

What does it mean to have a ‘lazy eye’?

While we may casually refer to this medical condition as a “lazy eye,” it’s technically called amblyopia.

“Amblyopia is a problem in how a child’s eye is developing, in which their eye isn’t developing on track or on time and isn’t able to see the best that we want it to see,” explains Dr. Borriello.

That means you may be able to see clearly out of your left eye, but your right eye is blurry. And why? Because your brain is overcompensating for the weaker eye by focusing all its attention on the stronger eye.

In addition to blurry vision, you may have issues with depth perception and tend to squint a lot.

What’s the age limit for lazy eye treatment?

There’s technically no age limit to treat amblyopia. But Dr. Borriello says it’s best to treat it during childhood.

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“Since amblyopia is a developmental issue, ideally, it would be treated between birth up to 12 years old because that’s the time period when your eyes and brain are still talking to each other and learning how to see,” Dr. Borriello further explains.

She says that many times, amblyopia is diagnosed during your first eye exam.

What happens if you don’t fix a lazy eye?

Can a lazy eye be fixed in adults? Possibly, says Dr. Borriello.

Recent studies give us some hope that if you haven’t been treated as a child, there may be some benefit in treating amblyopia as an adult,” she continues. “But there’s an asterisk over that because it depends on the cause and severity, as well as your current age.”

If left untreated, amblyopia can become worse the older you get. But even if you’re in your 30s and have never tried treatment, Dr. Borriello says research shows you may see some kind of improvement.

Lazy eye treatments

The treatment — and how long you’ll need it — is based on the severity of your amblyopia. And you could potentially need a variety of treatments to see an improvement, such as wearing eyeglasses and using an eye patch. Dr. Borriello shares how lazy eye is addressed in adults.

Eyeglasses

The first line of defense against amblyopia is usually prescription eyeglasses, which can help correct refraction errors.

“Glasses can help equalize the vision for both of your eyes,” says Dr. Borriello. “The goal is that once your vision is equal in both eyes, your brain will begin using the weaker eye.”

Eye patch

Ophthalmologists typically turn to eye patches if they don’t see an improvement with just eyeglasses, but they can also be used at the same time as eyeglasses.

“The purpose of patching is to cover the stronger eye,” clarifies Dr. Borriello. “Think of it this way: You want to patch the bully to let the weaker eye have more seeing time. This allows the weaker eye to develop and make the same connections with the brain as the stronger eye.”

When it comes to how often you need to patch your stronger eye, Dr. Borriello says it all depends on the severity. You could need to patch anywhere from two to six hours a day.

“The length of the treatment also depends on the severity and how much we see improvement,” she adds. “Often, we recommend patching for about a year or so.”

Medicated eye drops

If wearing an eye patch as an adult doesn’t seem ideal to you, your ophthalmologist may suggest medicated eye drops.

“We typically use atropine eyedrops in your stronger eye,” says Dr. Borriello. “It dilates the eye and causes blurred vision. This allows your weaker eye to do more of the work and become stronger over time.”

Think of it like wearing an eye patch, but without the patch.

Computer-based vision therapy

This newer form of treatment uses technology — typically loaded onto a computer or tablet — to track your eye movements.

“It blurs out the image in your stronger eye — the one we’d typically patch,” explains Dr. Borriello. “You’re using your weaker eye during that time period.”

This type of treatment can be done in the comfort of your home, but Dr. Borriello says that it’s not always covered by health insurance.

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Surgery

While there’s not a specific surgery for amblyopia, you may need surgery to correct other vision issues.

“For example, if you have strabismus and have an eye that wanders outwards, surgery may straighten it back out,” notes Dr. Borriello.

Clearer days ahead?

If you’re an adult and haven’t treated your amblyopia, you may want to talk to your ophthalmologist about lazy eye treatments for adults.

“You have to be motivated to try treatment options,” stresses Dr. Borriello. “Not very many adults want to wear a patch during the day.”

But it may be worth seeing how much you can improve your vision — and how seeing more clearly can have a positive impact on your life.

“If you’re curious, have the conversation with your doctor,” encourages Dr. Borriello.

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