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 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.
Doctors do not know for sure what causes ROP. 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.
- Caucasian (white) babies are more likely to get ROP than babies who are African-American.
- 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.