Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is an eye disease affecting 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 can go away on its own as an infant grows. If it does not go away, however, it needs to be treated. Otherwise, the child can have severe vision loss, or even go blind.
Shortly after birth, all premature babies should be checked for 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 should be checked by an ophthalmologist again 4 to 6 weeks after birth.
How Is ROP Treated?
At first, the doctor 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:
- Laser treatment
- Freezing treatment (cryotherapy)
- Medication eye injections
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 treatments target very specific parts of the retina to try to stop abnormal 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