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What is albinism?

Albinism is a condition that affects melanin production. Melanin is a dark brown pigment that gives colour to hair, skin and the eyes, it is a condition people are born with. People with albinism produce less or no melanin and have very pale skin and hair.

There are many different types of albinism.

The 2 main types of albinism are called:

  • Oculocutaneous albinism (affects the eyes and the skin)
  • Ocular albinism (only affects the eyes)

How does albinism affect the way a child sees?

Albinism can affect vision in different ways.

In children with albinism, the iris is usually pale and thin with gaps in it. Because of this, more light than usual gets into the eye. The extra light scatters around the inside of the eye, causing blurred vision. As too much light enters the eyes, children with albinism can experience glare and discomfort. This is called photophobia.

The eyes of children with albinism tend to make fast ‘to and fro’ movements. This is called nystagmus. Because the eyes are constantly moving, this also leads to blurred vision.

Children with albinism often need glasses to help see more clearly. Children can also develop a squint or a lazy eye.

How is albinism diagnosed?

Because the eyes, and often the hair and skin, are pale a diagnosis can usually be made quite easily. An eye doctor can examine your child, and sometimes parents as well, to confirm the diagnosis. The main features that young children with albinism may develop are:

  • pale blue iris with gaps in it
  • fast ‘to and fro’ movements of the eyes called nystagmus
  • ‘roving’ eye movements where the eyes appear to slowly wander, not fixing or staying still on any objects
  • a dislike of bright light and try to avoid daylight and well-lit rooms
  • the inside the eye (the retina) often looks paler than normal

All these signs help an eye doctor to make a diagnosis.

If there is no family history of albinism and the child is only mildly affected other tests can help to make a diagnosis.

What can be done to help?

There is no known way to help children make more melanin.

It is important, if children have been prescribed glasses, that they are encouraged to wear them.

Bright light often causes discomfort and reduced vision. Sun hats, caps and sunglasses can help to reduce the symptoms of photophobia. A dark tint to the glasses lens may help to see more clearly, reduce glare and photophobia. It may also help the vision parts of the brain to grow and develop. Some children find ‘wrap-around’ sunglasses very helpful. Lenses that get darker in brighter light (photochromic lenses) can also be useful.

Low vision aids such as magnifier can also be useful.

The ophthalmologist may refer you to the low vision service and provide information regarding visual impairment support.

Contact us

if you have any questions or concerns please contact the eye department on 0114 271 7468.

Further resources

For more information, visit the NHS website about albinism here.

Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind (SRSB) offers advice and support for children of all ages with a vision problem.
5 Mappin Street, Sheffield, S1 4DT
Telephone: 0114 272 2757

Sheffield Vision Support Service is based at Tapton School.
Telephone: 0114 294 1201

Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) aims to help blind and partially sighted people.
Telephone: 0845 766 9999

Look supports families with visually impaired children.
Telephone: 0121 428 5038

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

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