What is vision screening?
A vision screening is a brief test that mainly checks how well you can see things up close and far away. It's also called an eye test. The test usually involves reading letters on an eye chart. A vision screening is a quick way to find out if you need a comprehensive (complete) eye exam. A complete exam checks both your vision and eye health. It looks for signs of serious eye disorders that may not have symptoms, such as glaucoma.
Children usually have vision screening tests as part of routine health checkups. Older children may also have vision screening tests at school. For infants and toddlers, health care providers use different screening tests to check the health of the child's eyes and whether the eye muscles are working correctly.
Adults may have their vision screened during routine health checkups. But usually, their vision is screened as part of a complete eye exam from an eye care specialist. Eye care specialists who do complete exams include ophthalmologists and optometrists. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat all types of vision and eye disorders. Optometrists have advanced training to diagnose are treat certain types of vision and eye disorders.
Vision screening may miss certain types of eye disorders, so it's important for children and adults to have regular eye exams. Your or your child's provider or eye care specialist can tell you how often to have eye exams.
Other names: eye test, vision test
What is it used for?
For infants and children: Your child's provider will use special vision screening tests to look for signs of common eye conditions that need early treatment to prevent long-term loss of vision. These eye conditions include:
- Amblyopia. Children with amblyopia have poor vision that usually happens in just one eye. It's caused by a problem with how the brain and eye work together. It's sometimes called "lazy eye." Amblyopia is the most common cause of vision loss in children.
- Strabismus. This condition causes each eye to look in a different direction. One or both eyes may turn in ("cross-eyes") or turn out ("walleyes"). If strabismus isn't corrected, it can cause amblyopia and permanent eye damage.
For adults and children starting at about age 3, screening for problems with near and far vision is used to help find common vision problems that can be corrected with eyeglasses or contact lenses. In certain cases, eye surgery may also be an option. These conditions include:
- Nearsightedness (myopia), a condition that makes far away things look blurry.
- Farsightedness (hyperopia), a condition that makes close-up things look blurry.
- Astigmatism, which causes generally blurry vision and makes it hard to see at night.
- Presbyopia (only in middle-aged adults and older), this condition makes it hard to see things up close. It's a normal part of aging that makes the lens of the eye less flexible. Presbyopia often begins around age 45.
Why do I need vision screening?
For adults, vision screening helps find out whether you need a complete eye exam from an eye care specialist. If you have vision screening as part of a complete eye exam, the test will show how well you're seeing at different distances, including with corrective lenses (eyeglasses or contact lenses). If you have problems with your eyes or vision, contact your provider or eye care specialist.
Babies and children need regular vision screening. This helps find and correct vision problems before they affect learning or cause permanent vision loss. Ask your child's provider how often your child should have vision screening tests. In general:
- Newborns should be checked for eye infections and signs of other eye disorders.
- At 6 months to a year, eyes and vision should be checked during a regular well-baby visit. These tests are needed to check for early signs of strabismus.
- At 3 years, screening for near and far vision may begin for children who are able to describe what they see on an eye chart. This screening can be used with other tests to check for signs of amblyopia. All children should have at least one vision screening between age 3 and 5.
If your child has symptoms of an eye disorder, a vision screening may help decide if an exam from an eye care specialist is needed.
For babies under a year old, symptoms include:
- After 3 months: Not being able to follow a moving toy or other object with their eyes.
- After 4 months: Eyes that don't look properly lined up. Before 4 months, it's normal if your baby's eyes briefly look in different directions from each other.
For older children, other symptoms of vision problems include:
- Squinting or frowning
- Closing or covering one eye
- Trouble reading and/or doing close-up work
- Complaining that things are blurry
- Blinking more than usual
- Crankiness when using close-up vision, such as looking at books
- One or both eyes that are watery, red, swollen, or crusted
What happens during vision screening?
There are several types of vision screening tests.
Vision screening for children and adults includes:
- Distance vision test. This test is also called a "visual acuity" test. It checks how well you can see things far away. Usually, you'll read rows of letters off a wall chart or a video monitor. Each row of letters is smaller than the one before it. To take the test, you usually stand 20 feet from the chart and cover one eye. You read the letters one row at a time until you get to a row with letters that are too small for you to see. Each eye is tested separately. Some eye charts use a capital E that points in different directions. Special charts for young children may use pictures or symbols.
- Close-up vision test. For this test, you hold a small card about 14 inches away from your face. The card has several lines of printed text that get smaller and smaller. You read the text out loud using both eyes at the same time. This test checks for farsightedness in children and adults, and for presbyopia in adults.
- Color blindness test. Color blindness means you see colors differently than most people. You may also have trouble telling certain colors apart. Children are usually tested once for color vision. They're shown a picture of colored numbers or symbols in a background of multicolored dots. If they can't see the numbers or symbols, they are color blind.
Vision screening for infants includes checking:
- How well your baby's eyes can follow a moving object, such as a toy
- How your baby's pupils (the black center part of the eye) respond to a bright light
- Whether your baby blinks when a light shines in the baby's eye
- Whether both eyes focus together
Will I need to do anything to prepare for vision screening?
If you or your child wears glasses or contact lenses, bring them with you to the screening. Your provider may want to check the prescription.
Are there any risks to screening?
There is no risk to a vision screening.
What do the results mean?
If vision screening shows a possible vision problem or eye disorder, you or your child will likely be referred to an eye care specialist for a more complete eye exam and treatment.
Learn more about laboratory tests, reference ranges, and understanding results.
Is there anything else I need to know about vision screening?
There are different types of eye care specialists. These are some of the most common types:
- Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in preventing, diagnosing, and treating eye disease. They provide complete eye exams, prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses, and perform eye surgery.
- Optometrists are health care professionals who specialize in vision problems and eye disorders. They provide many of the same services as ophthalmologists, including eye exams, prescribing eyeglasses and contact lenses, and treating some eye disorders. In some states, optometrists can perform certain eye surgeries. For complex eye disorders or surgeries, you will need to see an ophthalmologist.
- Opticians are health professionals who are trained to fill prescriptions for eyeglasses. They fit you for frames and prepare your eyeglasses. Many opticians also provide contact lenses. An optician can't give you a complete eye exam, but may screen your vision with an eye chart.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology [Internet]. San Francisco: American Academy of Ophthalmology; c2022. Vision Screening: Program Models; 2015 Nov 10 [cited 2022 Oct 6]; [about 6 screens]. Available from: https://www.aao.org/disease-review/vision-screening-program-models
- American Academy of Ophthalmology [Internet]. San Francisco: American Academy of Ophthalmology; c2022. What is an Ophthalmologist?; [reviewed 2022 Aug 30; cited 2022 Oct 6]; [about 4 screens]. Available from: https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/what-is-ophthalmologist
- American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus [Internet]. San Francisco: AAPOS; c2022. Amblyopia; [updated 2021 Jan; cited 2022 Oct 6]; [about 12 screens]. Available from: https://aapos.org/browse/glossary/entry?GlossaryKey=1581f865-2199-4255-bd8e-d6ba0e975e81
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; CDC Facts About Vision Loss; [reviewed 2021 Aug 4; cited 2022 Oct 6]; [about 2 screens]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/facts-about-vision-loss.html
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